Suburban Shacks and High-Rises
A Brave New Contemporary Art Project in Bellevue
Olga Koumoundouros is based in L.A. and had never been to Seattle before this year. On a simple search for a cafe on the Eastside a few months ago, she found herself on a short dirt road in the middle of downtown Bellevue. Two shacks—derelict ranch homes, really—stood on one side of the road, swallowed in green overgrowth, their roofs buckling with moss. On the other side of the road was a freshly built high-rise, surrounded by construction cranes hovering everywhere, catering to the skeletons of towers scattered all across Bellevue's transmogrifying landscape.
She was there at the invitation of a high-rise developer, of all people. A high-rise developer who claims to know nothing about art, but who for the next three years is donating an apartment with a view and 2,000 square feet of two-story, immaculate exhibition space in his newest building to contemporary artists—to Koumoundouros, first.
Koumoundouros is one of the five artists who made Endless Column, Constantin Brancusi's 100-foot-tall cast-iron sculpture from 1938, come crashing into the Studio Museum in Harlem this summer—or made it look like it had, anyway. When she works alone, she often builds temporary structures, like a raft for Huck and Jim installed in a California swimming pool, or a warren of rooms made in plywood recycled from demolished high-rises that, from the top, spells the word "TERROR."
She'll be back in Bellevue Saturday, August 4, to begin her three-month residency and exhibition. This program she inaugurates is the latest in a series of ambitious contemporary art projects that have opened in and around Seattle in the last five years: the building of Tashiro-Kaplan, the transformation of the Frye Art Museum, the opening of Western Bridge, and the opening of Lawrimore Project. Now there's Open Satellite, completely different from the rest. It will give a rotating cast of curators the chance to bring four artists a year from outside the region to Bellevue, where they'll spend three months making, installing, and showing their work and interacting with the rest of Seattle art.
The first curators, who selected Koumoundouros, are Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, also known as Lead Pencil Studio (and 2006 Stranger Genius Award winners). They invented the concept behind Open Satellite in part because they're Seattle artists who have benefited from exposure outside the region—but also longed to see artists traveling into their home city, not just out of it.
But they are quick to point out that this is a project not just in Bellevue but also of, for, and about Bellevue as well as Seattle. Koumoundouros, for instance, is hoping to base her installation on elements from Bellevue's history, and she is negotiating to try to use parts of the shacks she found, which are scheduled for demolition.
And Open Satellite is dependent entirely on the largesse of downtown Bellevue developer John Su, who is bankrolling it. It's housed in his 23-story 989 Elements apartment tower, which opened to residents last September. The lobby of the tower is small and, though decorated with seating by Maya Lin, not particularly welcoming. Upstairs is a more open sitting area, with tables and a bar and signs advertising the building's slogan—"Beyond Just Living."
Su is sitting at one of the tables, explaining why he's doing this.
"What are we missing in downtown Bellevue?" Su says. "Artists. They can't afford it here."
The son of a Taiwanese businessman and the brother of an architect, Su is a civil engineer who chose to study at the University of Washington instead of Columbia University because at the time, he says, UW's program was number 10 in the rankings, one slot above Columbia's. He wants the best, not only for himself, but also for his adopted city of Bellevue, where he moved from Seattle in 1980. He contacted Han and Mihalyo, who are architects as well as artists, after reading about them in Architectural Record.
Su had already been involved in developing an "Ashwood Arts District" in Bellevue, and he first thought of using his prime ground-floor space in 989 Elements for an installation by Han and Mihalyo. But they countered with proposals for larger projects, including the exhibition hall for visiting artists. It was the biggest idea they had—and the one he went for right away.
"It's a gift," Mihalyo says. "Developers are potentially the new Medicis."
Su views contemporary art from a cautious, interested distance. He says he doesn't know anything about it, and he, Han, Mihalyo, and exhibitions director Abigail Guay (a Stranger contributor) joke about his philosophical stance toward it.
"To me, whatever people do, they should find a way to make money," Su says. "To artists, making money is a dirty word. But we are not asking for any income at this point. We are just saying, 'Let's do the right thing first and see where that is leading us.'"
What's clear is that his three-year commitment is remarkably generous, and backed by his trust in Han and Mihalyo. "They have the passion," he says, "and they are very stubborn."
And they're hoping for more than just good new art. Mihalyo, who grew up a mile north of 989 Elements but hasn't been back to Bellevue much in the 10 years since his family moved away, wants Open Satellite to challenge stereotypes about where art and artists belong regionally. He doesn't want the space to be an island, but a part of its environment.
The collapse of the Bellevue Art Museum in 2003, whose complex web of causes has never been entirely explained, has been boiled down instead to a stereotype: Bellevue is too backwater for new art. (The museum has helped to boost this perception by shifting its focus to craft.) The flip side of the stereotype is that Seattle is inauthentic and vain—and those perceptions run beyond contemporary art. A maintenance man at 989 Elements interrupted me while I was interviewing Su to ask why a liberal newspaper with "ridiculous" stories would bother coming to conservative Bellevue.
"This cross-lake snootiness is something, I think, that needs to be talked about as a region," Mihalyo says. "Open Satellite is a double challenge. It's not just, will Bellevue support it, but also, will Seattle support contemporary art outside its area?"
Mihalyo has harsh words for artists who look down their noses at places that are neither urban centers nor rural idylls, the two classic haunts of the artist.
"As a contemporary artist, you can't blindfold yourself to areas of culture that are relevant to the rest of the nation," he says. "We are supposed to be culture, but we are ignoring the relevant part of culture, in a way. If we can't succeed in that environment, then we aren't really contemporary artists, because that is a contemporary environment."firstname.lastname@example.org