Chihuly at the Bellagio, Las Vegas
  • Chihuly at the Bellagio, Las Vegas
The owners of the Space Needle—the Howard Wright family—have plans to erect a 44,550-square-foot exhibition hall of Dale Chihuly's glass art next to the base of the Space Needle after the Fun Forest clears out this coming September.

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The center would be a major showplace for Chihuly's art, with 21,500 square feet of interior exhibition space plus a retail shop and cafe. (By comparison, the Henry Art Gallery has about 14,000 square feet of galleries, the Frye about 12,000 square feet.) Admission would be paid.

The plan (PDF with images) has already been approved by the city's Design Commission, which reviews all proposals for the use of public lands by private entities. Of Seattle Center's 17 acres, this structure—inhabiting and extending the current Fun Forest arcade pavilion—would occupy about 2 acres.

The proposal goes next to the Mayor's office for approval, and if it is approved, in front of City Council.

"The premier glass artist in the world wants to be a part of this project," Robert Nellams, director of Seattle Center, told the Design Commission. "This is a good thing."

But not everyone is enthusiastic.

City Council member Sally Bagshaw, also chair of Parks and Seattle Center Committee, says she has "real concerns" about the current plan.

"Seattle Center is always in that tension between having to pay for itself, because there's not much general fund money for it anymore, so the Wright family has offered to put in a Chihuly museum and to pay Seattle Center a goodly annual sum. Now, here's the problem for me," Bagshaw says. "The Seattle Center is 74 acres, and only 17 acres are left of public property that are open for people. The plan with the Chihuly museum would be to create undoubtedly a beautiful museum but people would have to pay to go in, and it would take up at least two acres of land.

"I took one look and said, 'If that's something you have to pay some money to go see, then that really isn't right,' because I want Seattle Center to be Seattle Central Park, where you can go even if you don't have money. And there are two problems: 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 [Request for Proposal]—some kind of public process. They need money to run this place, and I really respect that, it's just, 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."

Architect Dennis Forsyth led the team that, in over 60 public meetings spanning two years, created a new master plan for Seattle Center in 2008.

The Chihuly project runs counter to master plan, he says. The master plan calls for the Fun Forest Pavilion to be torn down in order to make more open, green space in the Center. (PDF with images, pages 21-22.)

Like Bagshaw, Forsyth wants to be realistic, and recognizes that Seattle Center needs money.

"But you should go to the master plan; you'll see why it's so counter," Forsyth says. "The movement's been, 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.

"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."

He also points out that the Fun Forest Pavilion 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.

Norie Sato is the only artist on the Design Commission. When the project came in front of the commission in January, she cast the lone vote against it. She wants to support the arts in the center, but doesn't believe this is the best way.

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"I just didn't know whether, 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 was, it just wasn't a big enough idea. It was just sort of the attitude, 'I'm just going to put all my stuff in here.' I just 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, I think, anywhere in the world," she says. "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 just, 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."