Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park
Photo by Bradley Hanson

Seattle Asian Art Museum, Community and Magic

One of Seattle's keystone places deserves the cultural benefit of an expanded Asian Art Museum.

I wrote this blog piece just after the New Year to help solidify my own thoughts about the proposed expansion of SAAM. People on all sides of this question deeply revere both Volunteer Park and SAAM.

Building a sustaining community isn’t easy. Otherwise it wouldn’t be so rare. It’s takes thought, time, organic trial and error and a little of the undefinable, call it luck or even magic. Seems we beat the averages here in the PNW. A recent poll we conducted shows a lot more of us love our communities than in most other regions across the country. Lucky us, sure, but there are no guarantees here. We need to continue to work at it, this magic. We need to keep our keystone places fresh and serving our neighbors and residents, as we also respect the legacy of those who labored to make them special and not lost to the whim of the moment. Quite the trick in a growing, prosperous, young city.

Volunteer Park is one of Seattle’s most venerable community keystone places. A cherished, citywide community anchor with landscapes and well-placed trees every bit as majestic as those in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, or the Presidio in San Francisco. And, each of these three places has something even more, that together with their landscapes make them what they are: a mix of the cultural alongside their landscapes that creates a more responsive, lively place than they ever could be otherwise. Prospect has its Botanical Garden, its Grand Army Plaza and even its Zoo. The Presidio, its crazy tangle of greenspace, ocean shore with commerce and civic places. Volunteer Park, the stately Conservatory and the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM). All grand examples of 1+1=3. Of that magic thing.

These great combinations of park and civic places give us space for a peaceful family walk, a mind-opening look at a reflection of high culture or a contemporary expression of street art, and also are the magnets for communities across the city to come together. They represent the best of urban living.

Eighty years ago our city had the wisdom to place the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park. Those of us nearby and across our city have been blessed by the special synergy of these two institutions ever since. The museum, now dedicated to the art of our Pacific Rim neighbors, deserves room to grow, in a manner of course respectful to the Park, so it best serves all our residents.

I live nearby, and over the last 35 years—before kids, with kids, and now after kids—the park and the museum have been both intimate backyard and world window. For several springs while there was an active nest, we’d start Saturday mornings flat on the ground, binoculars in hand, watching a family of accipiter hawks (I’ll venture Northern Goshawks) in an old horse chestnut tree along the Park’s west side. The natural world calls to all of us. Being able to share in a little of the wild in fact makes us more civilized. Then we’d go to SAAM and glimpse the world from a vantage point different then the Seattle of today. In the space of a morning, we would see birds in nature and then nature painted on the landscape scrolls of the Song dynasty. Like I said, it’s one of the benefits of living in a city.

Rest assured, our Saturday mornings weren’t all high-purpose. We’d also splash around in the wading pool. And to sustain body and keep spirits up on the walk back home, the kids would each get a chocolate chip cookie at Volunteer Park Cafe. Today, we’ve no handy excuse to romp in the pool and we settle for caffeine-free, nonfat lattes when homeward bound.

SAAM is now proposing a modest, sensitive expansion. It will help make the museum more responsive to our growing neighborhoods and enliven the Park as a consequence. SAAM’s unique place in the Park and the potential of enhanced coordination of programming with the Park is an opportunity to be grabbed.

SAAM is a powerful asset that helps activate and enhance Volunteer Park for neighborhoods across our growing city. I hope the museum expansion goes through and we deepen the magic of this community keystone place for all of us.

Design rendering of proposed expansion of SAAM. View of East Wall
Design renderings: Courtesy of LMN Architects

The Seattle Art Museum is scheduled to hold one more public meeting about the proposed SAAM expansion in January.