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History of Seattle Art Museum

The SAM collection has grown from 1,926 pieces in 1933 to nearly 25,000 as of 2008. Its original museum provided an area of 25,000 square feet (2,300 m2); the present facilities provide 312,000 square feet (29,000 m2) plus a 9-acre (3.6 ha) park. Paid staff have increased from 7 to 303, and the museum library has grown from approximately 1,400 books to 33,252. While the number of visitors has grown, the pattern is more complicated: 346,287 people visited the museum in its first year; in 1978 the traveling exhibit Treasures of Tutankhamun (shown in the facility at Seattle Center) drew 1.3 million visitors in a mere four months; 2007 attendance was 797,127.

Seattle Art Museum

SAM traces its origins to the Seattle Fine Arts Society (organized 1905) and the Washington Arts Association (organized 1906), which merged in 1917, keeping the Fine Arts Society name. In 1931 the group renamed itself as the Art Institute of Seattle. The Art Institute housed its collection in Henry House, the former home, on Capitol Hill, of the collector and founder of the Henry Art Gallery, Horace C. Henry (1844–1928).

Richard E. Fuller, president of the Seattle Fine Arts Society, was the animating figure of SAM in its early years. During the Great Depression, he and his mother, Margaret MacTavish Fuller, donated $250,000 to build an art museum in Volunteer Park on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The city provided the land and received ownership of the building. Carl F. Gould of the architectural firm Bebb and Gould designed an Art Deco / Art Moderne building for the museum, which opened June 23, 1933. The Art Institute collection formed the core of the original SAM collection; the Fullers soon donated additional pieces. The Art Institute was responsible for managing art activities when the museum first opened. Fuller served as museum director into the 1970s, never taking a salary.

Among the museum’s notable exhibitions (besides the aforementioned Treasures of Tutankhamun) were a 1954 exhibition of 25 European paintings and sculptures from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation; these pieces were donated to SAM in 1961. A 1959 Van Gogh exhibit drew 126,100 visitors. That same year, SAM organized a retrospective of the work of Northwest School painter Mark Tobey that traveled to four other U.S. museums. Tobey’s works and highlights of SAM’s Asian collection were featured under the museum’s aegis at the Century 21 Exposition (the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair). A Jacob Lawrence retrospective in 1974 honored a giant of African American art who had settled in Seattle four years earlier. Leonardo Lives (1997) featured the Codex Leicester, the last manuscript of Leonardo da Vinci in private hands, which had then been recently purchased by Bill Gates.

SAM joined with the National Council on the Arts (later NEA), Richard Fuller, and the Seattle Foundation (in part, another Fuller family endeavor) to acquire and install Isamu Noguchi‘s sculpture Black Sun in front of the museum in Volunteer Park. It was the NEA’s first commission in Seattle.

Close-up of First Avenue entrance, Seattle Art Museum

In 1983–1984, the museum received a donation of half of a downtown city block, the former J. C. Penney department store on the west side of Second Avenue between Union and Pike Streets. They eventually decided that this particular block was not a suitable site: that land was sold for private development as the Newmark Building, and the museum acquired land in the next block south.  On December 5, 1991, SAM reopened in a downtown facility designed by Robert Venturi.  The next year, Jonathan Borofsky‘s Hammering Man (one of several such pieces by Borofsky) was installed outside the museum as part of Seattle City Light‘s One Percent for Art program.   Hammering Man would have been installed in time for the museum’s opening, but on September 28, 1991, as workers attempted to erect the piece, it fell, was damaged, and had to be returned to the foundry for repairs.  In 1994 the Volunteer Park facility reopened as the Seattle Asian Art Museum. In 2007 the Olympic Sculpture Park opened to the public, culminating an 8-year process.

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