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Light, Space And Beauty Art Museums In Seattle A Palette Of Transformation

Sun., June 22, 1997

It’s time to check out two of Seattle’s major art museums, even if you’ve visited them many times before.

Because, trust me, you’ve never seen them like this.

The University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery and the Frye Art Museum on Capitol Hill have been transformed beyond recognition by huge renovation-expansion projects.

The Frye Art Museum spent $12 million, the Henry $17.5 million. The Frye was shut down for more than a year and a half, the Henry for two. The Frye reopened in March, the Henry in April.

Now both buildings are worthy destinations for art lovers around the country, and especially for Spokane-area visitors who can daydream over this question: If $12 million and $17.5 million can convert these two buildings into national-quality art venues, what might Cheney Cowles Museum achieve with its proposed $20 million renovation?

Already, the Frye and the Henry are attracting the art world’s attention and praise.

“Seattle is sending the message that, in terms of art, it’s moment is now,” Christine Temin recently wrote in the Boston Globe. “The region has, or course, had an independent artistic voice right along… . The difference is that now Seattle has the will, and the buildings, to show it all off.”

Add a third new building - the stunning new Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University - and Inland Northwest art lovers can look forward to a rewarding weekend trip full of light, color and beautiful space.

The Frye Art Museum

This museum has always been a rather eccentric art mecca in the middle of Seattle’s First Hill (also known as “Pill Hill” because of the hospitals). Built in 1952 as a way to show off meat-packer Charles Frye’s collection of mostly German paintings, it has attracted a steady crowd of people who enjoy European art of the 19th Century, as well as other realist works.

Frye’s will stipulated two things: That the art be strictly representational (none of that new-fangled abstract stuff) and that the paintings be displayed with as much natural light as possible.

In Seattle architect Rick Sundberg’s remarkable redesign, which added 12,000 square feet and completely altered the existing 30,000 square feet, that latter demand was a challenge he took up gladly. His redesign is flooded with natural light, beginning with the distinctive entrance rotunda.

Here, a large suspended dome is surrounded with sunlight (or cloudlight, as is often the case in Seattle), which filters into a welcoming lobby.

Skylights, often cleverly hidden, bring warm light into the gallery spaces, too.

“That’s a very unusual feature,” said MaryAnn Barron, the Frye’s director of community relations. “We spent six months studying how to bring natural light into a museum.”

Filters screen out harmful rays, and nowhere is direct sunlight allowed. Supplemental artificial lighting is used throughout. Yet the natural light has a brightness and clarity which makes many of these dark German works appear almost cheery.

Other new features include a reflecting pool surrounding the entryway, a bright new art studio for classes, and a pleasant new Gallery Cafe, which has its own outdoor dining courtyard.

The idea was to create a gathering spot for the surrounding community. On our visit, the Gallery Cafe was filled with office and hospital workers seeking an oasis of culture in an otherwise hectic midtown neighborhood. A new 142-seat auditorium also serves as a community focal point.

From a strictly artistic perspective, the most important parts of the renovation-expansion are two new display spaces, one devoted to changing exhibits and the other to national and international touring shows.

Charles Frye’s insistence on representational art limits the possibilities, but not as much as you might think. For instance, in one gallery, the current exhibit is “Czech and Slovak Photography: Between the Wars to the Present” which is representational by definition, but often wildly imaginative. It remains on display through July 6, followed by “American Masters from the Permanent Collections” July 11 to Aug. 3.

Showing from July 4 to Sept. 14 in the other gallery is “Contemporary Marine Art: American Society of Marine Artists.”

“We really couldn’t bring in touring shows before,” said Barron. “That was the whole purpose of the renovation … and then it grew, and grew and grew.”

The renovation, by the way, was financed wholly from this private museum’s endowment.

And here’s one final amazing fact about the new Frye: It’s still free - even the parking, right across the street. The museum is at 704 Terry Ave. in Seattle. To get there from Spokane, take 1-90 into Seattle, go north on I-5 for less than a mile to the James St. exit. Go up James to Terry (watch for the Frye Museum signs), turn left and look for the rotunda.

The Frye Art Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Sundays noon-5 p.m. and Thursdays 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mondays. Call (206) 622-9250 for information.

The Henry Art Gallery

As thorough as the Frye’s renovation was, the Henry’s was even bigger and ultimately more significant. This University of Washington campus gallery has gone from 10,000 to 46,000 square feet, thus turning it into a Northwest landmark for modern and contemporary art.

The project was funded by a public-private initiative, and one of the major benefactors, to the tune of $5 million, was the Allen Foundation (yes, that would be Paul Allen of Microsoft billionaire fame). The resulting building, designed by Charles Gwathmey of New York, includes a number of state-of-the-art technological features, as you might expect in a city swimming in software money.

The new Henry includes a three-story addition called the Faye G. Allen Center for the Visual Arts, with extensive facilities for video installation, film and other multimedia works. For instance, one piece acquired for the Henry’s opening is Gary Hill’s “Tall Ships,” in which visitors walk into a dark cavelike tunnel. Projected video images of people are scattered on the walls. As a viewer approaches, each video person stands up (triggered by hidden electronic switches), and approaches the viewer until the image is life-size.

The majority of the addition, built mostly below grade, consists of airy, skylit gallery spaces, with light wood floors, tall white walls and textured steel. One gallery space is a massive 6,000 square feet - big enough to accommodate large-scale works. A 700-square-foot multimedia gallery handles technology-based works.

The roof of this new modernist addition, built into a slope, is now a pedestrian plaza. A footbridge over the busy 15th Avenue Northeast leads into it from one direction; the UW’s famous “Red Square” is just beyond the other end. An outdoor spiral staircase circles a concrete tower.

The addition itself is wrapped around the original Henry building and creates a striking contrast to the old brick and cast-stone. Visitors find themselves in the old building first; from there they move down to the second level, which includes a balcony overlooking an outdoor sculpture court, and from there a cascading stairway spills visitors down into the new gallery spaces.

The new renovation includes a 154-seat auditorium, a research facility, classroom and studio space, a new cafe, a new bookstore and new storage facilities.

Even the museum’s collections have been augmented. The Boeing Co. made a gift of $1.5 million for purchasing the Joseph and Elaine Monsen collection of photography, which includes works of Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston.

“With this one coup, the Henry becomes a national power in photography,” wrote Temin in the Boston Globe.

The Henry’s exhibits this summer include Richard Long’s “Puget Sound Mud Circles,” through Aug. 31; “Between Lantern and Laser: Video Projections,” through July 22; “Sculpture from the Jon and Mary Shirley Collection,” through Sept. 28; and “Blue Four” from June 29 to Oct. 19.

The Henry Art Gallery is located at 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street on the UW campus. Admission is $5 general and $3.50 for students and seniors. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays; and closed Mondays. Call (206) 543-2280 for information.

The Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University

No, this is not an art museum, so it doesn’t exactly belong in the same category as the Frye and the Henry. But here’s the connection: It’s a new building, and an absolutely stunning work of art.

And it’s so close to the Frye, that it would be a shame not to stop in and visit en route from the Frye to the Henry. That’s what we did, on a whim, and we’re grateful that we did. I have never seen a building like it in my life.

From the outside, it looks unimpressive, maybe even ugly. But step inside (visitors are welcome), and you are in a sacred and magical world. Architect Steven Holl of New York describes his concept as “seven bottles of light in a stone box.”

The white, textured walls are suffused with colored light, both from colored windows, and also from painted baffles which softly reflect blue, green, orange, yellow and purple light. At night, interior lighting creates the same effect.

The interior is divided into smaller spaces (or in Holl’s image,”bottles’) which correspond to an aspect of Catholic worship. Perhaps the most beautiful space is the tiny but soaring Blessed Sacrament Chapel, glowing with soft purple and orange light, a perfect place for private prayer and contemplation.

The main sanctuary itself is small, but radiant with yellow and blue. Outside the entry doors, one of which is a massive 6-by-9-foot hunk of Alaskan cedar, is an almost Zen-like reflection pool and a soaring bell tower.

A scale model of the building has already been selected to become a part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Words fail to describe the serenity and beauty of this building, but its subtitle - “A Gathering of Different Lights” - comes close.

See it for yourself, by going just a few blocks northeast of the Frye, on the Seattle University campus at Broadway and Madison. It is open during daylight hours. Call (206) 296-6075 for information.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos


 

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