Chihuly glass museum proposed at Seattle Center where Fun Forest stood
Replacing Seattle Center's outdated Fun Forest with a 44,000-square-foot exhibit space for famed local glass artist Dale Chihuly reopens a decades-long debate about how the Center can reinvent itself and pay its way.
A proposal to replace Seattle Center's outdated Fun Forest with a 44,000-square-foot exhibit space for famed glass artist Dale Chihuly reopens a decades-long debate about how the Center should reinvent itself and still pay its way.
The Wright family, which built and owns the Space Needle, on Tuesday described a partnership with Chihuly and Seattle that could attract more than 1,000 visitors a day if the city will lease about an acre of land for what would be a $15 million tribute to the glass artist.
If built, a Chihuly spokeswoman said, the new "glass house" would be filled with at least $50 million worth of Chihuly art.
The site, located at the foot of the Space Needle, was to be planted with trees as envisioned in the Center's 2008 master plan, which promoted more open space. Some wondered Tuesday whether the Center needs another paid-admission venue at the expense of a more natural public setting.
"There's good intentions all around, but we need to decide, is this what we want to do with our public property?" said City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who chairs the council's Parks and Seattle Center Committee. "We're taking green, open space and closing it off in a very walled fashion, and people can only enter into that if they can pay. My hope and dream would be to make the Seattle Center Seattle's 'Central Park,' and the more green space we give away, the less we're going to have a Central Park."
Mayor Mike McGinn took a different stance. He said the Chihuly exhibit could be a good way to generate revenue for the Center, which funds 67 percent of its own budget. "We should be open to see what they can develop here, because it could be good for the Center," he said, adding that master plans like the 2008 document are meant to be flexible.
Council President Richard Conlin said the city should find a way to have both open space and a Chihuly museum, which he called "a pretty extraordinary" opportunity.
Space Needle Chairman Jeff Wright approached the Center and Chihuly last spring about a plan to showcase the artist's work, said Center spokeswoman Deborah Daoust.
Such a public-private partnership is consistent with a successful formula that Chihuly has used to sell his work around the world. The Seattle Times profiled the artist in 2006, describing the marketing machine behind the Chihuly brand and his successful use of not-for-profit organizations.
Those organizations include museums and charities, as well as public television stations that air documentaries about the artist that were produced by Chihuly's production company. The stations also buy his glass and self-published books to offer as premiums to donors.
Chihuly no longer blows the glass that bears his name, and hasn't for a long time. Rather, he designs works for others to make, and selects works made by others to put his name on, making him the world's foremost impresario of glass art.
His renown as a glass artist stems from his early contributions to the glass-art movement and to his savvy marketing, which brought his work to museums around the world in exhibits that he arranged and, at times, offered for free.
Among Chihuly's works: the Bridge of Glass in Tacoma and installations in Tacoma's Union Station, the Seattle Art Museum and Benaroya Hall.
On Tuesday, Chihuly said the Seattle Center project would be "by far the most elaborate installation I've ever done."
The 43-foot-high glass exhibit space would include a restaurant filled with pieces from Chihuly's collection. Early designs call for retail space to sell works including Chihuly's paintings and plates, said project spokesman Dan McConnell, who works for the Wrights.
The project's design was presented to Seattle's 10-member design commission for review in November. The commission, which serves as an advisory board to the City Council and the mayor, approved the concept and made recommendations on how it could be improved.
But commission President Mary Johnston, an architect, stressed that the commission was not endorsing the project as the best use of the public space. The decision on whether to allow the space to be used as a display for Chihuly's work ultimately belongs to the council and the mayor, she said. Should they approve the concept, the commission would make recommendations on how that should be done.
To build the project, the Wright family said, it would need a 30-year lease, which would require the City Council's approval. The family has formed a separate company — Wright Art LLC — to fund the project.
Space Needle CEO Ron Sevart said he hopes construction could begin in September, when the lease on the Fun Forest expires. The project could open in the spring of 2011, in time for the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair at the Center. Sevart said he didn't know what admission would cost but said it might be in the $12 to $14 range.
Sevart said Space Needle officials are negotiating what it would cost to lease the space from the city, but he noted that the revenue would be far more money than the city receives today from the Fun Forest.
Once the city decided the vintage Fun Forest had to go, its biggest rides were sold, dismantled and shipped off. The south part of the Fun Forest, including the pavilion with the bumper cars and kiddie-land, will remain open through Labor Day.
For years, the city has struggled to find and fund a unified vision for the 74-acre campus. The loss of the Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008 was seen as yet another blow. That same year, an advisory group put the finishing touches on what was touted as a 20-year master plan for the Center. But there was no funding for the plan.
The city did reach agreement late last year with Seattle Public Schools staff to demolish the district-owned Memorial Stadium, making way for plans to open up the Center's northeast corner. Plans for the area include a new, smaller stadium and an amphitheater.
And in January, the Center opened eight bids for a three-acre site that now houses the northern part of Fun Forest. But Daoust, the Center spokeswoman, said the bids were disappointing. Most were from existing tenants, and the Center is pursuing only one idea — a children's garden.
Plans for upgrades to other parts of the Center are being scaled back because of budget cuts. The Center is considering low-budget options like basketball hoops for the area outside the Center House Theater. Budget cuts last year took $1 million of the money slated for improvements.
"This is a time when we're having a difficult time getting investment in Seattle Center," said City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, the former chair of the Parks and Seattle Center Committee. The Chihuly project is "something that is a real opportunity for Seattle Center as well as the city."
No public funding would be involved.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or email@example.com
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