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Dale Chihuly vs the anti-art tea baggers

Some people need to reintroduce themselves to reality.

Reality: The 74-acre Seattle Center is home to a failed, five-acre Fun Forest. Even at its peak, it wasn’t that much fun. I was there more times than I want to remember with nephews and nieces, pouring money down the drain of their frustrated desires. Now that the pseudo-fun is gone, what’s left is the asphalt on which it rested.

Three of those five acres are going to be open space with a children’s garden, a basketball court, a maze for kids to climb through and a big tent for big band dancing, with picnic tables for semi-outdoor dining during the wet season.

What’s left is the smaller kiddie ride parcel north of the Monorail and east of the Center House, a little more than one and a half acres. After the carousal and bumper cars are gone, there were no plans and no money to do anything but leave it as an asphalt wasteland until the economy improves.

Enter Jeff Wright of the Howard S. Wright family. He’s offering to spend $15 to $20 million to fill it with a temporary museum dedicated to Dale Chihuly. The museum would consist of a green-walled rehab of an existing shed-like arcade building, an open garden and a glass house. Chihuly would fill it with a rotating selection of his work and (potentially) the work of others, bolstered with a wide range of education programs.

dalechihulyneedle.jpgWright’s family helped build the Space Needle, and he was chairman of the the Century 21 Comittee that developed a master plan for the next 20 years of development at Seattle Center. He was also a major fundraiser for Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall, that houses Seattle Opera.

Why Chihuly? Because his work is its own kind of fun forest. Full of play and dazzling in its high theatrics, his sculptures give shape to excess and make it shine. They are an international draw, breaking attendance records whenever they are shown.

Then there’s the man. Thanks directly to him, Seattle is the Manhattan of glass art. There are now more glass blowers in Seattle than in Venice. Even though Chihuly doesn’t know more than a fraction, he’s the reason they’re here. More than anyone else, he created the environment that makes their careers possible.

Without him, there would be no Pilchuck Glass School and no Museum of Glass. No artist since Robert Rauschenberg has done more to create art opportunities for others. He was the prime mover behind the scenes at the Hilltop Glass program in Tacoma, which gives at-risk youths a chance to put hot air to practical use, a program copied in Seattle at Pratt Fine Arts Center and elsewhere around the country.

He supports more charities than Jimmy Carter. The list of institutions thanking him is nine pages long (single-spaced) and includes museums, art centers, hospitals, schools and health programs, nearly all in this region. Look in vain for this list on his Web site. It isn’t there. The master of self-promotion doesn’t promote his own good deeds.

Back to the project:

We’re talking about less than two acres out of 74 to be the temporary
home to this mainstream attraction. Even so, when plans for the Chihuly
museum were announced last month, the just-say-no crowd rallied its
forces. If the Space Needle were proposed today, rest assured that they
would bring it down. Who needs a giant Flash Gordon piece of kitsch? The
very idea is an affront to our civic sense of our self-importance.

Contrary to what has been charged, the museum is not a public-space giveaway. It’s a lease approved in five-year increments with a 20-year top, with projected revenues to the city running from $300,000 to $500,000 annually.

Who’s against Chihuly at the Needle?

1. City Council member Sally Bagshaw, who wants Seattle Center to be Seattle Central Park. (Never was, never will be.) Bagshaw appears to be following David Brewster’s musty, myopic lead. He wants a park. Yes to grass, and only if that grass doesn’t have any colored glass spears and orbs nestled in its shoots. She says she doesn’t want a Seattle Center facility to be a tribute to one man. (Is she planning to raze the Bagley Wright?)

2. Jen Graves, leading an anti-Dale campaign in the Stranger, here.

3. City Council member Jean Godden, who’d like to see a Chihuly museum in Pioneer Square. That’s nice Jean, but it’s not the proposal, the one that could actually occur in real time on earth. (I have hopes Godden will come to her senses before too much longer.)

4. Random Chihuly haters, venting on various Web sites.

I find the opposition bewildering. They want open space? Open space is not vacant space, and a public attraction is not necessarily a public nuisance. Seattle Center already has 17 acres of rolling greens and plantings. But it also has 30 for profit and nonprofit enterprises, including Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Opera, Intiman Theatre, Bagley Wright Theater, the Children’s Theater, the Science Center and EMP.

Robert Nellams, director of Seattle Center, has sensibly requested other proposals for the site. Anybody else with an idea can let him know. There isn’t going to be another idea as good as this one, fully-funded with a top draw attraction. If sanity prevails, the museum will become a reality. The major risk is that Wright and Chihuly become discouraged by nay-sayers and withdraw. Neither has to do this project. If they feel they’re surrounded by boos, they won’t.

Comments

  1. I don’t get the impression they’re listening very hard to the boos, they’ve practically got shovels in dirt.
    I’m trying to imagine a major city that would with no notice hand over a big chunk of land in a major park to a private business. Then I’m trying to imagine a city where that would happen without citizens being angry about it. I can’t. Can you?

  2. THANK YOU!

  3. R – You’re eliding over the fact that this museum, as opposed to many of Chihuly’s big public draws, is a for-profit venture (by comparison, the Henry & Frye are non-profits). Seattle center will never be central park, but I do think it’s important that this city consistently create new & attractive spaces that are free and open to the public (in the spirit of the central library? maybe, that space at least serves all the functions it sets out to, which the seattle center does not, & will not, apparently), as opposed to novelites that are only for the rich. The fun forest was a for-profit venture, but idlers weren’t excluded from the space the way that they will be from the proposed Chihuly museum.
    I would support a Chihuly museum, but only as a shot in the arm for public space.
    & your praise of Chihuly as an exemplar for what an artist can do in the economy he grew out of is correct, but I don’t think it deserves any praise at all. When a kid sets out to become an artist, it shouldn’t be contingent on his parents’ ability to hire a marketing director straight out of school.

  4. Thank you for writing this thoughtful, well informed and well researched article.

  5. Eric. Nobody handed anybody a “big chunk of public land.” What are you smoking? The museum is a proposal winding its way through various agencies, including the Seattle Design Commission, which approved it. It’s still a proposal, details unresolved. And yes you bet key players are listening to the boos, which may well eliminate the museum as an option. Also: It’s a five-year lease. O big deal. How can you write “with no notice hand over a big chunk of public land?”

  6. Billy. I’m not “eliding” over the fact that this museum is for profit. So was the Fun Forest, a portion of which the museum will replace. Seattle Center has always been a blend of for profit and nonprofit enterprises. Plus, since the museum will not cost the public a penny and will earn it $500,000 a year, the for-profit aspect surely applies to the public.

  7. Regina, I can write that it’s being handed over with no notice because Seattle Center just developed a 20-year master plan, in the works since 2006, which called for more open space and public activities. It makes no mention of creating new art venues, or closing off new areas of the park to the public. In fact, its description of the area around the needle is rather compelling:
    “Five acres of valuable real estate returns to the public realm in January 2010. A significant space on the campus that is now most frequently an empty asphalt lot for carnival rides becomes an active, fun destination for children and families throughout the hours of the day and the days of the year.
    “Surrounding the Space Needle will be a landscape expressing the abundance and sustainability of the earth, a naturally forested area, a structured urban forest, sustainable gardens and botanical terraces.
    “The Horiuchi Mural, a legacy of the World’s Fair, enjoys a new location, once again surrounded by water as it was when it was created. On the west is an improved performance space for community events and major festivals.
    “A play area, located between Center House and the EMP|SFM, evokes the World Fair’s ’World of Tomorrow’ theme, with a sculptural “jungle gym” play structure and a splash pool that converts to an outdoor ice skating rink in winter.”
    http://seattlecenter.com/media/century21b.asp

  8. Larry Yocom says

    I’m in full agreement with Regina on this one.
    Who’s losing out on this? It is a fully funded project that will pay a lot of rent to the city and provide open space on the vacated north parcel of the defunct Fun Forest property, also at no charge to the city.
    Dale has been a huge benefactor to artists from this city and around the world, Seattle’s most famous living artist. Highlighting his career and bringing attention to Seattle’s vibrant art scene is what this should be all about. I think this will benefit all other art venues throughout the city.
    I am a season ticket holder to the Seattle Rep, Seattle Opera, and Intiman Theater. I almost only see movies now at the Imax theater at the Science Center. I use the center for arts related enjoyment.
    At least the Chihuly Museum project is not sports related, which has been, by the way, jammed down our throats before, twice, with football and baseball. I am glad the Sonics are gone and the Seattle Center can truly reflect the outstanding arts that thrive on the center grounds.

  9. Hi Eric. Do you think the master plan is a set of rules? It’s a set of guidelines for the possible future. When a purely positive gift comes along, a sensible city embraces it, not declines on the basis that such gifts were not anticipated in its master plan. Plus, the Chihuly Museum is intended to be temporary. The lease is five years, with three options to renew. In the next five years, nothing is anticipated for that little bleak stretch. Let’s see: bleak stretch or revenue-generating, crowd-pleasing Chihuly Museum. I don’t understand why this is so hard for you. Look past your taste to the larger good. Regina

  10. Thanks for concisely summing up this project in an informative way… I think other reports have been misleading about the amount of space and the placement of this project. However, it doesn’t quite win me over. It’s not that it’s a weak argument, in the way that you’re saying the Bagley Wright theater is a tribute to one man rather than a venue named after him; or that the Space Needle would be shouted down, rather than being accepted as a more open viewpoint taking up less land than this project. It’s just that I think a more imaginative, open ended project intended for the use of the general public might be created in it’s place. So, yay for mentioning the open proposal suggested by Robert Nellams… but, boo for shouting it down with an assumption that there couldn’t be a better idea. I’d love to see an artist & architect designed commission build a better “fun forest” amusement park than has always been there – but, I suppose that’s too low tech an idea for our modern age and unsupportable by local money. Not to mention the fear that it would turn into a corporate drenched video game.

  11. Hi Mark. I meant, another idea backed with full funding and capable of generating $500,000 annually for the city. No, I don’t think there will be such an idea proposed, but if there is and it comes with a better plan, I’ll be happy to be wrong.

  12. Speading common sense to nihilist Lesser Seattle dinosaur faux liberals is just about as effective as trying to introduce Tea Baggers to the concept that less government means MORE Wall Street bailouts.
    But I’m still happy you are trying.

  13. “I don’t get the impression they’re listening very hard to the boos”
    Wow. Eric F really embraced that whole TeaBagger mantra, didn’t he?
    The parallel lack of self-awareness is both apalling and entertaining at the same time.

  14. I find it funny that you would characterize individuals who have stated that they would rather see the space opened up for all of the public as Teabaggers. Isn’t it the Teabag scene the one that wants to privatize our public spaces?

  15. Hi Damion. I’m using teabagger as a synonym for the irrational.

  16. ellichan says

    The Chihuly museum is a “museum” in the same way the Fireworks gallery is a “gallery.” Which is to say, not at all.

  17. Ohh I get it. Like Saying Obama is a marxist nazi when people mean intelligent black man. lolz.

  18. Michael Davidson says

    In honor of whomever it was that labeled Oldenberg as “the thinking man’s Walt Disney”, Chihuly shall hereby referred to as “the craft person’s Liberace”.

  19. I Got Nuthin' says

    Regina, by simply describing those of us who adamantly hate this proposal for any number for legitimate reasons–and I don’t need to list them here, they are well documented elsewhere–as “anti-art tea baggers” you cede any credibility whatsoever.
    I have a long response to your post within me, but since you no longer have any credibility, I’m not even going to bother.

  20. volcanic says

    Thanks Regina. Somebody needed to point out the pettiness flying about. Politicians feeding their favored media outlets, which then feed strong opinion disguised as balanced reporting is populist rage mongering. Not good for the arts community to have that kind of venom flying around.
    You brought up valid points that haven’t been mentioned much in the knee jerk negativity.

  21. “If the Space Needle were proposed today, rest assured that they would bring it down. Who needs a giant Flash Gordon piece of kitsch? The very idea is an affront to our civic sense of our self-importance.”
    Well, not me! Let’s build another one! Or a giant Ferris wheel right next to it! Or a classic wooden roller coaster to draw tourists! Or a non-single-artist museum with rotating exhibitions. Or….etc. There goes your straw man. To argue that everyone who disagrees with the project does so because they are closed-minded, hate the idea of building anything anywhere, etc., and create motivations for us out of whole cloth is kind of insulting (as is your list purporting to boil down who is against this project).
    If I’m against the “museum” I’m “anti-art”? And the Bagley Wright theatre is a “tribute to one man” in any way like the “museum” would be to Chihuly? Really?
    If you truly find the opposition “bewildering” perhaps you should try listening instead of demonizing and dismissing it. I understand that you have issues with Jen Graves and The Stranger, but the letter from Christian French she posted online articulately explains how someone could oppose this project without dismissing Chihuly nor being an anti-art idiot – please, if you haven’t, read it with an open mind:
    http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2010/04/05/i-couldnt-have-said-it-better-the-case-for-questioning-the-chihuly-museum

  22. One point you keep reiterating repeatedly is the $500K in lease revenue Regina. The (more important) public-private debate aside, it’s the math I’ve been interested in. Generally speaking, I see the point, $500K/yr certainly seems better than nothing. However at that rate it sure seems like SC is on the loosing side of negotiating a fair market lease rate. Granted, I’m not a real estate agent, so I’m taking a guess here. But really, that $500K at 44K total sq. ft is about $11.25/sq ft. Being somewhat familiar with commercial lease rates I say the park has some wiggle room to leverage a more competitive rate to really bolster its income. I mean if this IS about earning the public $500K a year as you mention, and the trouble-shooting thought process is to go to the private sector–why not think the way the private sector does and NOT operate far below market value??
    Which brings me to the fact that if one spreads the anticipated $20M initial TI investment, (that is cost to build the museum), across the max 20-year lease that’s 1M a year JUST to build it. Add to that annual rent and operating costs (not to mention inflation) divided by their projected annual attendance and it seems like a risky solvent venture–let alone a profit buster. (Did they talk to Mr. Allen?)
    So what if Mr. Wright saved some cash and gifted the park 10M in 20 $500K annual installments and the City figured out how to build the damn green space–and hey here’s an idea, a part of it could include a botanical garden, with you guessed it, a Chihuly exhibit. Charge admission to it, it would be a fair trade off.

  23. Yoko O: Brilliant, YEAH!!!!

  24. For what it’s worth, here is the text of a letter I wrote as a follow-up to last Tuesday’s meeting at the Center. I am pleased to see that people remain interested in discussing this project, and hope that the ultimate outcome is one we can all be satisfied with…
    Christian
    “As an artist living and working in Seattle, and as someone who has had a long association with the Seattle Center, both as an exhibitor and as a spectator, I was caught by surprise recently when I heard about the nascent proposal to place a Chihuly-centric project on Center grounds. Curious, I attended the extended meeting at the Seattle Center on Tuesday for what I had hoped would be a discussion of the proposal, and arguments for its merits, as well as some justification as to why the long-thought-out proposal for opening up the Center grounds was being suddenly replaced by something billed as a “done deal” in some quarters. Before attending the meeting I had some concerns, namely: that a permanent, static installation of the work of one artist would be the vehicle to create a lucrative tourist attraction that offered little of significance to permanent residents of the region, clogging up public space with boatloads of people herded to what would be billed as an unparalleled aesthetic experience all of whom, assumedly, would pay for the privilege, pause at the café, and shop at the gift shop. As a business plan, this is a winner, but this is being sold as a cultural treasure, which is where my misgivings lie.
    I have lived in several urban spaces. In New York, we considered the space between the postal box and the fire hydrant to be open space, so I don’t automatically think a project like this is problematic for spatial reasons. What is being ignored however is the value of space which is flexibility, variety, change. Fixed, permanent things close down conversation, and I think we need to defend variety as a civic virtue. One core definition of what makes a living thing is it’s ability to change and if we want to preserve the vitality of the Seattle Center then any project must embed variety within it. Creating a “shrine” (suited for tourist pilgrimage) for any one person runs the risk of becoming a mausoleum, and I think that would be, well, bad.
    At the meeting on Tuesday, I sat through endless testimonials in favor of this project (so fully along that even the moderators seemed to be promoting it). When you subtracted the people for whom there was obvious personal self-interest (do we really need to give public land over to private use to provide jobs for a few construction companies?) there weren’t many people effectively arguing in favor of the merits. Chihuly is generous? That’s nice, but I expect that of any member of our community who becomes successful. Chihuly has influenced, supported, benefitted, employed lots of people and artists over his career? Heck, when I lived on Eastlake, I used to sleep on his shelves, but that’s another story. His value to us as a region, to glass as a medium, and to the future of the Center must rest on what for lack of a better term I will call “meaningfulness”. The business-enterprise-cum-cash-cow that is being proposed here must do more than be attractive, it must offer significant public benefit, and that’s where the waters get murky.
    People seem to split fairly clearly in terms of Chihuly’s work, and his contribution. People love his work, because it is attractive, accessible and in no small measure, collectible. People who don’t like his work find beauty an insufficient metric, have issues with his over-the-top success and fail to see how something they consider a craft is really art. As an artist who has passionately explored beauty in my own work, I appreciate what he attempts to do (it isn’t easy) and while some of his work fails to interest me, I think his enthusiastic and possibly indiscriminate pursuit of beauty can result in truly beautiful work. I think his chandeliers are in their Baroque, ebullient excess, simply gorgeous. And, I would add, something it takes an industry to support. The problem is: it was that industry that came out on Tuesday. It is that industry that came across as a giant bulldozer prepared to overwhelm considered opposition by proclaiming that because Chihuly is X or has done X or whatever – that “he” “deserves” “X”. We got little explanation as to how this project serves to elevate the dialogue about what art is and could be in our region/culture/society. We also got little explanation about why “he” thinks this is such a great opportunity and what “he” thinks is being offered to us. I think this oversight will cost this project, if not in terms of success then in terms of goodwill, and legacy. In the end an interested observer is forced to conclude that this is simply another form of marketing, branding and strategy, one that makes use of facilities conveniently located right next to a certain tall building owned by the people who stand to gain. Since those facilities are public there has to be a better case made for public benefit, beyond vague promises of a good rent. Nowhere here is a real argument for how the rest of Seattle and the region stand to gain on a meaningful level.
    One thing struck me while attending the meeting, and it has taken me a while to tease it out, although I tried to take a stab at it in my public comments. Vested interests aside, I could see how people who actually thought that this was a good idea were sincere. I could see how they thought bringing tourist dollars in was a good thing. I could see how they imagined that the space created would be one of aesthetic fulfillment: i.e. that people would find it beautiful, attractive, and worth visiting. I could see them struggle with the idea that anyone would reject such a “gift”. I could see that people sincerely were in favor of this saw it as “Chihuly’s Gift to Seattle” and those opposed see it as “Seattle’s Gift to Chihuly”. Impassioned arguments about the man and his work are, in this matter, red herrings.
    We don’t need a “Chihuly Museum” at the Seattle Center (leaving aside that it isn’t wouldn’t be and never was a museum), though some people would like to see one. We don’t need a “Museum of Glass” at the Seattle Center – Tacoma’s is fabulous enough. We may need to generate revenue to support the Center, but then we always have and there’s a larger discussion in that. What we need is a clear articulation of how anything and everything at the Center serves a public good, and I am always in favor when the Arts get celebrated as a public good (I am also always opposed when the Arts get taken advantage of for cynical motivations). To this end, I am forced to ask this question. If a project like this moves forward, how can it be something of true and real value?
    As I suggested before, I can imagine a world where Chihuly cares about beauty and cares about offering up to everyone a gift of significance. I have wondered what such a thing would look like, filtered through my own bias. I would have to conclude that unless half the exhibition space was devoted to a rotating project space that allows for other artists to come through and engage multiple mediums, and the region, then the project is in danger of being forever condemned as a vanity exercise. I think that should be avoided. This project has the possibility of taking people already attracted and interested in Art and offering them a rich conversation about how we see the world and reflect back what is beautiful and meaningful in an endless variety of ways. We have several excellent examples here: Suyama Space and Open Satellite being but two, Kohler’s Arts and Industry program (in Wisconsin) being another take. I also suspect that unless some significant portion of this is made free and accessible then down the road people here will feel taken advantage of – again, a legacy worth avoiding. I would suggest that beyond a fixed rent, some respectable portion of revenue be allocated as a give-back: whether it be a funded grant with Artist Trust or Office of Arts and Culture, or whether it be support an annual temporary art installation program on the Center grounds or some other idea (keeping the money at the Center is the cleanest idea). This would allow something we could point to that exists above and beyond the project itself, giving the citizens of Seattle the feeling that we all somehow benefit. I’m sorry, an above-market lease may pencil out well, but it’s like getting socks for Christmas. Not much of a gift.
    Anyway while I’m not good with sound bites, as my previous exegesis demonstrates, here’s what I think this boils down to. Since much of the arguments in favor of this project rise and fall on one man, I will address my question to him. Dale, if you want a project that celebrates Glass, that celebrates Art, that celebrates this region, and that celebrates you, then it has to be about more than simply you and your work. I would love to see you create a beautiful space that we all enjoy. I agree that a significant work by you would draw people from every corner of the globe. If you are the creative person that people make you out to be, and that I see in your work, then give us something that has true creative potential. Give us something that changes over time, that allows for a meaningful conversation, and that people on both sides of this can get behind. Make an allowance that some of the revenue go back to the creative community, so that everyone feels they have a stake. In short, give me a way to support this in good conscience, so I don’t have to keep writing long-winded letters like this one.
    Thank you in advance,
    Christian W. French”

  25. Alfred Harris says

    Regina,
    You know how to stir things up. We all love you for that.

  26. No one wants a Chihuly museum. Leave it green.
    No one will attend & it’ll be about as successful as the glass museum in Tacoma = not successful.

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