The Frye is on the right.
The Frye is on the right. Courtesy of Perkins+Will

Last month, the Frye Art Museum announced that it's selling the land across from the museum (currently the parking lot) in order to make way for two high-rise, market-rate residential towers expected to generate new money for the museum.

This has some people asking whose side the Frye is on in the fight for an affordable Seattle. They also ask: will the Frye's stake in high-cost living make it a high-roller's museum?

In discussing the project last month, board president David Buck emphasized that the towers will provide needed money for the museum into the future. He didn't speak of any programming changes at the museum linked to the real-estate development.

But the Frye's application for preliminary land use suggests more of an entanglement.

"The project proposes to have a strong relationship—physically and operationally—with the Frye Art Museum," the application reads. "In essence the goal is for the new development to be an extension of the Frye, encompassing Terry Ave. and public open space on the project site. Significant art elements and opportunities for programmed events are being considered."

Virginia Rankin is a Frye guide. She said she's tried to contact the Board of Trustees to ask them questions directly, but that she has not received any return calls.

To Rankin, towers with only market-rate residential housing are a poor fit for the Frye, which has free attendance for all, programs that serve people in need, and supports Seattle artists who have exhibited work there decrying the fact that all kinds of people of modest means are being pushed out of this city.

"The Frye has the opportunity to become a model for the city in taking on this issue," she said. "Instead it seems to be becoming part of the problem. The 450 luxury tower residences are lauded as providing a ready-made audience for museum exhibits, an audience that might desire very different sorts of exhibits."

Surprised by the news, Rankin also phoned the Frye's Catholic neighbors at St. James Cathedral and the Seattle Archdiocese. The staffer she reached hadn't heard of the project, but, Rankin said, "my winning argument with her was that Pope Francis would be on my side."

Rankin wants the Frye, with support from the City Council, to incorporate subsidized housing. Imagine, Rankin said, "vibrant, diverse housing more in scale with the neighborhood."

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Seattle-based author of The End of San Francisco, also posted disappointment, hopes, and questions for the Frye on Facebook, after diving into the museum's most recent publicly available tax documents.

"I’m haunted by the Frye Art Museum’s decision to sell its parking lot to a developer that will build two 33-story luxury ('market-rate') apartment towers," Bernstein Sycamore wrote.

She continued: "...it appears that the Frye has chosen a developer that believes in public art—but, what about public housing? Public art without public housing is just a distraction from structural oppression. In a city currently being destroyed by real estate speculation, why must the Frye partner with a for-profit developer in order to continue 'expanding our revenue base'... With assets already totaling $55 million, and $6 million in rental income (in 2014) from the properties the Frye already owns, wouldn’t it be a better investment to partner with an affordable housing developer?... Imagine if the Frye helped to create 450 new units of permanent low-income housing, instead another 450 units of glittering unaffordable crap? What an incredible artistic statement this would be."

By phone, Bernstein Sycamore added that the museum's operating budget is listed on those documents as $4 million—"and there are many things they're making money off of in addition to the [$6 million in] rental income. The Frye is a great resource. But it shouldn't be framed as a struggling institution, to me. They're in a unique position where they could actually do something different. And as we know, what we need more of in Seattle is affordable housing. So to not have that be part of the development is just supporting the real-estate speculation that's causing the displacement crisis in Seattle."

This is just one part of the story. I'll be writing more when I talk to more people, including posing these questions to the Frye.