S eattle Center is winning no awards as a city park. It is a haphazardly designed campus choked with badly placed buildings you have to pay to get into. The most visible and infamous of these is Experience Music Project, a shrine to Paul Allen's collection of music and science-fiction memorabilia, which has only occasionally been able to transcend its underthought beginnings as a vanity project. Surely, Seattle has learned lessons from its past planning at Seattle Center, right?
Maybe not. An idea for a huge, new, ill-defined pay-to-play tourist attraction—a Dale Chihuly exhibition hall, to sit at the base of the Space Needle—is already in the design stages. It was the idea of a wealthy local family, the Howard Wright family, which owns the Space Needle. The plan calls for a 44,550-square-foot exhibition hall of Chihuly's glass art, to be placed inside and to extend the current Fun Forest arcade pavilion. The plan does not describe Chihuly's vision, but it calls for a whopping 21,500 square feet of exhibition space, plus a retail shop and cafe. (By comparison, the Henry Art Gallery has about 14,000 square feet of galleries and the Frye Art Museum about 12,000 square feet.) Admission would be paid, and the venture would be for-profit. The Wrights would pay for construction, and the museum—the Wrights prefer it not be called a museum, and they have a point, since it won't have curators, but no other word is quite right, either—would be privately run.
Seattle Center is a public/private enterprise that's been foundering for years. It needs money. That's the subtext when Seattle Center director Robert Nellams says, "The premier glass artist in the world wants to be part of this project. This is a good thing." Nellams isn't pretending to be adding to the cultural life of the city; he's trying to bring something popular to Seattle Center. And it's hard to blame him. The Chihuly Bridge of Glass in Tacoma, as well as Union Station in Tacoma—that city has literally thousands of Chihuly glass pieces displayed publicly, for free—are big draws. (Pity Tacoma if Seattle becomes the destination for Chihuly glass.)
But it's hard to see why the Seattle Design Commission, which reviews all proposals for the use of public lands by private entities, approved the plan. The commission, a 10- member body made up of architects, engineers, urban planners, and an artist, is supposed to keep both public benefit and design in mind—and to raise questions about both at an early stage, so they can be ironed out before plans go before the mayor and city council.
From 2006 to 2008, about 60 public meetings were held to determine what people wanted from the always-problematic Seattle Center. The response was overwhelming: more open, green space. Of Seattle Center's 21 remaining public acres (the total acreage of the Center is 74), the Chihuly museum would occupy about two—in a place left green and open in the master plan that was developed in response to those public meetings.
"You should go to the master plan; you'll see why it's so counter," says Dennis Forsyth, the architect who led the Century 21 Master Plan team. "The movement's been to open up the Center. It's a park for the city, and you ought to make it inviting for the city. There was a lot of community involvement—and I mean a lot of community involvement—and the consensus was to make it more green. We didn't take out many buildings, but this was one of them."
Forsyth wants to be realistic, and he recognizes that Seattle Center needs money. "I don't want to take a position yea or nay," he says. "But people should take a look at what they're doing, and it ought to be done with the same level of sensitivity the master plan was done with."
The Fun Forest pavilion, he points out, was constructed shortly after the 1990 master plan was published—and it went against that plan, too. "After the 1990 plan, the first thing they did was plop in a building that was not appropriate, and it was that building," he says.
Lessons learned so far: zero.
The tension at the heart of Seattle Center is that it is a public-private entity. The land is prime civic real estate, but it is not supported by prime civic dollars, leaving the public side in a position of weakness—which is why it needs thoughtful, diplomatic advocates. City council member Sally Bagshaw, also chair of the Parks & Seattle Center Committee, says that if a project is going to run counter to what people said they wanted from the Center, it ought at least to be free and open to the public. Furthermore, how can the city know its options when only one is under discussion? Use of the land on the other side of the current Fun Forest (which is scheduled to shut down entirely after Labor Day) is being opened up for a request-for-proposals, or RFP, process, which means ideas will have to compete on their merits. The privacy of the Chihuly museum process thus far makes it look suspiciously like a fait accompli.
"There are two problems," Bagshaw says. "One, it's not open to the public, and secondly, if we have something that's going to be used for private gain, we need to have an RFP—some kind of public process. They need money to run this place, and I really respect that; it's just that I've got another hand up, which is to take care of this public space. It would be a little bit like if we said to somebody that wanted to move up into Volunteer Park, 'Here, take two acres, enjoy yourself.' And that doesn't strike me as quite right without having the public engaged in it and saying, 'Yeah, that's what we want.'"
And what about the art content of the proposed museum? The plan calls for a 20-year lease, to be renewed in five-year increments. It is unclear what the displays would be or how often they would change. A distinction is made in the plan between a museum, which "has rotating exhibitions," and this center: "This will be a permanent installation of Chihuly work." That makes it sound like the Bridge of Glass in Tacoma, which is unchanging. But the minutes of the design commission meeting also say, "Uncertainty exists as to how often it might change." The exhibition concept is unspecified.
That worried Norie Sato, the artist on the commission, and the lone vote against the plan at the January meeting where it was introduced. She wants to support arts at Seattle Center, but isn't ready to jump on board yet.
"I just didn't know, if you were going to set up a center like this, whether devoting it to a single artist was adequate—civic enough as an opportunity," Sato says. "My other concern was the way Chihuly was thinking about it; it just wasn't a big enough idea. It was sort of the attitude 'I'm just going to put all my stuff in here.' I didn't think the whole thing had been thought through well enough, really. If we're talking about taking public space away, I kind of think we have a responsibility to make it something that isn't just okay or adequate.
"It's going to be the biggest display of Chihuly anywhere in the world," Sato continues. "It's a really big deal. I think it's a big change for the Center, and it may be good for the Center. I'm a little skeptical. I try to be supportive, because I think that anything that brings more culture in is a good thing, but we want to make sure it's accessible—and worth turning away public space for."
The most disturbing aspect of the planned Chihuly museum is not the idea itself—but the lack of questions that have been asked about it thus far. At a press conference on Tuesday, March 9, at the Space Needle, Chihuly did not take questions. He described his life history, then laid out the plans for the project, which will include "many of the best [glass] installations that I've ever done," a 70-by-10-foot backlit mural on Plexiglas, others of his drawings and paintings, and, in the dining area, some of his own collections of objects. Ron Sevart, CEO of the Space Needle, said the museum is scheduled to open in spring 2011. "It's gonna happen fast—I know that much," Chihuly said, then was escorted out.
This article has been updated since its original publication.