Ian McMahons giant curtains made of plaster were one of the most spectacular installations at Suyama Space over the years. At the end of their run, in 2014, the curtains came crashing to the floor in a controlled destruction that took place in front of a SRO crowd.
Ian McMahon's giant curtains made of plaster were one of the most spectacular installations at Suyama Space over the years. At the end of their run, in 2014, the curtains came crashing to the floor in a controlled destruction that took place in front of a SRO crowd. Courtesy of Suyama Space

In a letter sent to supporters this week, Suyama Space co-founders Beth Sellars and George Suyama wrote:

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Having few conventional administrative limitations freed Suyama Space to present a fluid presentation of art devoid of constraints, and to provide opportunities for inspired experimentation. It thrived. As we move into our 19th year, however, the social and cultural environment around us is radically changing. It feels this is an ideal time for change.

Just as an arc has a beginning, a middle, and an end, we have decided, after considerable thought and discussion, that Suyama Space will end its programming in one year, at the end of 2016.

I called Sellars, the curator, and asked her what the letter meant by a "social and cultural environment" that is "radically changing," and what that has to do with an unconventional art gallery that charges no admission and invites artists three times a year to build site-specific installations in a large, imposing barn-like room in the middle of George Suyama's architectural practice.

Why now?

Sellars suggested I ask Suyama about that. (I called him, but he wasn't available. I'm hoping to talk to him soon.) She didn't have much to add on the subject.

On the phone this morning, Suyama explained that it was "an emotional" decision, "more of a feeling...It's not anything I can absolutely describe." When I asked how he feels now that the announcement is out, he said, "There's remorse for having my own feelings about wanting to change, but at the same time a feeling of open-endedness that I haven’t felt for a long time here because commitments were so continuous... I think creative people need that, we need a change."

But Sellars willingly reminisced about 18 good years while adding she doesn't have any future projects lined up yet. "Can't I retire?" she said, joking. Sellars retired from the city in 2005, but kept curating highly anticipated exhibitions at Suyama Space, so it wasn't a retirement at all.

"I doubt I'll be un-busy, but I haven’t given it any thought at all," she said.

She talked about a comprehensive publication to document all the installations at Suyama Space, and that there are still three exhibitions before it closes. The first, Joan Tanner: The False Spectator, opens January 15. (Sellars is a tremendous force in art; I always wished I'd written this Regina Hackett profile of Sellars from 2007.)

Sellars was a curator at the City of Seattle when she was on a trip to New York and discovered new work by the artist Lynne Yamamoto in 1997. "We have to find a way to get you out to Seattle," she said.

She looked around for places and couldn't find anywhere, until one day, the artist Peter Millett mentioned that he had an architect friend who had a great big room he was trying to figure out what to do with. Sellars approached Suyama (whose firm is Suyama Peterson Deguchi), who said Sellars could rent the place. But she was already bringing the artist on her own dime, and she doesn't have many dimes.

Sellars shelved the idea for a little while. Then, on another visit to New York, Sellars heard Suyama was there, too, and she encouraged him to see Yamamoto's work at the reopening of P.S.1.

"Forget the rent, you can have the space, let's just do it," Suyama told Sellars, she said.

After Yamamoto came solo shows for Eastern Washington sculptor Jack Dollhausen, Seattle instrument-sculptor Trimpin, and Montana installation-maker Patrick Zentz. All of them took work they were already doing and showed it at "George Suyama's architectural firm," as it was then known.

But the failure of a group show in 2000 revealed the higher purpose of Suyama "Space." The paintings on the walls in the show were lovely, but "they looked like postage stamps," Sellars said. Only a wall-sized installation of nails with rubber bands stretched across them in a pattern that formed the appearance of three-dimensional cubes really stood out. It was by Victoria Haven, the Seattle artist who now shows at Greg Kucera Gallery.

That was it, Sellars realized. Suyama was a space, a volume, not a set of walls. Every artist since has to submit a proposal after visiting the space itself, and create work tailored to that place. Artists' responses have ranged from historico-political to formal to architectural to theatrical/sonic/plumber-ly. One of my favorite things about attending an opening at Suyama Space is that, unlike at many openings, you often couldn't just ignore the art. It would smack you in the head if you tried to do it like that.

"I always credit her [Haven]," Sellars told me. "It was she who made us actually see the space and how important it was to respond to it, because it’s such a monstrously powerful building. If the installation can’t stand up to the space, it’s going to get eaten alive."

From there, artists who had never worked in large scale before often made the leap during their exhibition at Suyama Space—artists like John Grade, whose life-size sculpture of a massive old-growth tree last week opened at the new Smithsonian Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

"John Grade was doing small objects until he met the challenge of that space, and that's the thing I find the most bittersweet [about the closing], is that it was watching the creative process time and time again... Whether it was fantastically successful or not so successful, it was still really interesting to see artists meet that, to sit and have to actually respond to the space where they haven't had to do that before," Sellars said.

A highlight was when Ian McMahon spent weeks building a pair of facing plaster theater curtains that were enormous, and that stood on their own against all odds.

Then he obliterated them.

Artists will receive the news of this closing with sorrow, I think, artists including Alex Schweder, Cris Bruch, Lead Pencil Studio, SuttonBeresCuller, Claudia Fitch, and Rick Araluce and Steve Peters, all of whom have created extraordinary exhibitions in this now-sacred room. (It's made sacred by memories, not just by art.)

I wonder how the employees at Suyama Peterson Deguchi, who traipsed through the gallery every day while artists were constructing their massive works, and then as those works stood and received visitors, even just to get from their desks to the bathroom.

Did the art influence the architecture they made over the years?

"When we have the artists in the gallery installing, the guys in the office are constantly talking with them or giving them a hand to do one or two things," Suyama said. "I think that proximity and dialogue and engagement was one of the most important things to me, because we’re living in such a virtual world. It’s hard to describe things virtually, you have to actually feel what they’re talking about."

Installations by Bruch, Lead Pencil Studio, and Grade taught architects "the ideals of incredible craftsmanship," "dedication," and risktaking. When Lead Pencil Studio hung thousands of filaments from the ceiling, to fill the room, "I still remember walking through that space with light streaming through it," Suyama said. "It was a magical space. It felt like you were underwater."

I'm pretty sad myself. I know it happens. I know 19 years is a long time. And still.

I'll miss Suyama Space, all those old timbers and that frightful wide-open expanse that artists have faced for almost two decades. Thank you, George Suyama, and especially Beth Sellars.