One week after the Seattle Art Museum's grand reopening, the city's Special Events Committee decreed that SAM will have to face a worst-nightmare scenario in its new Olympic Sculpture Park: 200,000 munchie-fingered stoners will be allowed to stream past millions of dollars' worth of art on their way to Hempfest in adjacent Myrtle Edwards Park.
For a year, SAM objected to Hempfest's plans, maintaining that the sculpture garden wasn't designed to accommodate the throngs who crowd Myrtle Edwards Park during the third weekend of August every year. Additionally, SAM insisted that Myrtle Edwards Park is too small for the growing Hempfest, which has been held at the waterfront site since 1995.
Chris Rogers, project manager for the sculpture park, told the event committee in April, "We've made the determination that... we will close that staircase and what has been renamed the 'high road.'" Without that easement, SPD Sergeant Lou Eagle says, the entrance to Myrtle Edwards Park would be unsafe for the annual pot-legalization rally.
Only two other city parks—Gasworks Park and Volunteer Park—are big enough to accommodate major events such as Hempfest; both have been vetoed by the city on the grounds that two days of heavy Hempfest traffic would damage residential neighborhoods. Myrtle Edwards Park, in contrast, is adjacent to crowd- and traffic-friendly Belltown, easily accessible by bus, surrounded by parking spaces, and landscaped to handle the event's huge crowds and hundreds of vendors.
Hempfest organizers were nonplussed by SAM's objections: The city ordinance that granted SAM the waterfront parcel also requires SAM to provide Hempfest safe access through the waterfront portion of the sculpture park. But city brass seemed reluctant to enforce the law. So, three weeks before last year's Hempfest, organizers filed a lawsuit to obtain access to the park. (The city immediately issued the permit, so Hempfest withdrew its lawsuit). This year, Hempfest organizers were again prepared to sue both SAM and the city for their right to assemble in the park.
That all changed on May 11, when event-committee chair Virginia Swanson sent SAM an unexpected letter:
"The Special Events provision of the [Operation and Management] Agreement (which specifically references Hempfest) permits SAM to undertake 'special security precautions,' but the City does not believe it permits SAM to close the public access route. SAM has also suggested that it might consider using two of its five allotted 'private events' days to close the Olympic Sculpture Park during Hempfest. The City's position is that the Agreement does not permit SAM to do so at this late date."
Why did the city dismiss the operations and management agreement and allow itself to be sued last year before finally putting its foot down? Swanson declined to answer that question. But Hempfest director Vivian McPeak has a theory: "It seemed the city government was [reluctant] to lock horns with SAM until their opening was over." The letter was sent less than one week after the "new SAM" opened on May 5, 2007.
The city's event committee is also undergoing an internal audit this year, triggered by Hempfest's lawsuit in 2006. Using Hempfest as a case study, auditors are trying to determine if the committee is abiding by the city's special-events law, which requires the city to quickly process applications and accommodate free-speech assemblies. Another lawsuit from Hempfest during the audit could potentially lead the city council to overhaul the permitting process—or dismantle the event committee altogether.
When I called Swanson on Monday, June 4, she was drafting a permit mandating that SAM open up the sculpture park. "I hope to send my draft [to the city's law department] this afternoon," she said. "I think it will be issued this week. The earlier the better, from my viewpoint."
SAM also seems newly open to Hempfest's concerns. According to Cara Egan, SAM's manager of communications, "Things are working out, and we're really trying to figure out safety issues but keep the entire park open."
With a permit on the way, Hempfest has agreed to shell out $16,500 to repair the damage SAM claims was caused last year by attendees trampling the beach cove. Despite the bad blood with SAM, McPeak is optimistic. "We look forward to having the opportunity to work alongside SAM," he says, "and for them to realize we're not the bad guys; we're very reasonable and fair."