There we were, basking in elegance and style in one of the most splendid buildings in all the city—the newly reopened 1933 art deco Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM)—and the emcee was all but apologizing.
"There really will be a lot going on here, just a whole range," said Mimi Gardner Gates, Seattle Art Museum director, trying to sound convincing about the so-so exhibitions coming to the Volunteer Park location over the next 18 months.
In truth, the Buddhist sculpture, Chinese painting, contemporary video, glass art, photography, and sound installations on the short-term roster aren't intended to astonish. This is a between time for the museum. Gates and her curators are saving their muscle for the opening of the Olympic Sculpture Park on the Elliott Bay waterfront late this year and the expanded downtown headquarters on First Avenue in spring 2007. (Meantime, SAM downtown is closed.) The price tag, including SAAM's new roof and skylights, is $180 million; $144 million has been raised.
But if this period is artistic purgatory, it's architectural heaven, albeit under a melancholy haze. SAAM, Carl Gould's deco masterpiece, is a reminder of what a great museum building feels like. Studded with sleek, abstract decorative details—golden stripes on milky stone, for one—its parties are straight out of The Great Gatsby. This was the first home of the Seattle Art Museum, and it is a glorious place. Like another blazing Gould design, the Amazon.com headquarters on Beacon Hill (once a hospital catering to war vets with STDs), SAAM has that dual sense of imposing history and fabulousness.
Yet it inspires hopeless longing, like an ex-boyfriend who turns out to have aged more gracefully than your husband. In 1991, trustees moved SAM to Robert Venturi's hyped but ultimately execrable edifice downtown, turning Gould's building into an Asian art satellite museum. Now they're mitigating the situation with a complicated revamping of the downtown location by Brad Cloepfil of Portland's Allied Works, which will result in a structure that includes Washington Mutual office space. For art lovers, the hybrid creature may turn out to be a satisfying staging ground. For architecture fans, there's no way the city will end up with something as good as what it got in 1933.
Museums are becoming more virtual and less palatial, and SAM officials say the free, outdoor sculpture park will expand the museum concept and mark a healthy shift away from edifice obsession. But a good park won't make a bad building go away. Plus, museums serve objects as well as people and ideas. Buildings are sites of meaningful conflict—objects as subject to interpretation as any installation, and as capable of providing sensual joy. That's where Gould's jewel comes in. They should have emptied SAAM of art for the next 18 months and let the vacant building stand and be adored. In the SAM trinity to come, God and the Holy Spirit may be living downtown, but you'll have to go to Volunteer Park to experience divine flesh.