Chilhuly exhibit in Tennessee has been a big draw — would a similar Seattle Center exhibit do as well?
The Cheekwood Botanical Garden was struggling to attract visitors in 2005, so its new director went after an exhibit that has proved a sure draw: Dale Chihuly's glass. Seattle Center is considering a permanent Chihuly exhibit at the base of the Space Needle. As in Nashville, money — more than art — may be a deciding factor in whether Seattle officials select Chihuly for the site.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle Times will examine the KEXP proposal for Seattle Center on Friday.
A committee this month will announce its recommendation for the Fun Forest site to Seattle Center Director Robert Nellams. The City Council will make the final decision later this year.
When seven tractor-trailers of glass finally arrived this summer, the temporary exhibit drew thousands of visitors and raked in more than 1,000 new memberships.
Seattle Center is considering a permanent Chihuly exhibit at the base of the Space Needle. As in Nashville, money — more than art — may be a deciding factor in whether Seattle officials select Chihuly for the site.
Seattle Center has aging buildings, an upcoming 50th anniversary and a 20-year master plan it can't afford to fund. It needs a project that will enliven the campus and attract new visitors to the park.
Chihuly's project has emerged as a front-runner among eight proposals competing for the prime 1.5 acres being vacated by the Fun Forest. The exhibition, Chihuly says, would be "iconic" — filled with his favorite pieces, but unlike any project he's done.
Under the proposal, the privately owned Space Needle Corp. would build a 44,000-square-foot Chihuly exhibit, shops and cafe and pay the city between $350,000 and $500,000 in annual rent over the next 20 years.
The Space Needle Corp. forecasts that "Chihuly at the Needle" would attract more than 400,000 visitors — 70 percent of them tourists — and generate $561,000 annually for the city in admissions, sales and other taxes. Full-price admission would be $12.
Chihuly's proposal has exposed deep divisions about what should be included in Seattle's most famous park, and even what the Center should be. Chihuly has been criticized as overly commercial, and skeptics of the project say the Center doesn't need another paid attraction for tourists. Supporters, though, say it would draw visitors and much-needed money without any public investment.
"It could be that the ultimate decision by the mayor or City Council focuses very strongly on revenue," said Bill Block, chairman of the committee charged with making a recommendation to the director of Seattle Center. "But the review panel was asked to look at multiple factors."
The committee will weigh projects based on how they'd fit at Seattle Center, the visitors they would attract, and — crucially — whether they could be built without city subsidy, Block said.
"It's not sort of an abstract artistic judgment" about whether the committee likes a proposal, Block said.
Besides the Chihuly exhibit, the committee is considering a new studio for local listener-supported radio station KEXP, a Native American cultural center, green space, a museum of local mysteries and folklore and the Fun Forest amusement park's bid to stay on the site.
Solved money woes
In Nashville, Cheekwood sought Chihuly as an antidote to its own financial troubles.
The botanical garden is an estate built in Nashville's poshest neighborhood in the early 1930s by Maxwell House coffee barons.
It became a nonprofit art center in 1960, and the original mansion now houses a museum surrounded by a 55-acre botanical garden.
"The board knew a little bit about Chihuly, and we knew that they'd been to Phoenix and some other places and had significant increases in membership and admissions as a result of the Chihuly exhibit," said Bill Andrews, chairman of the Cheekwood board.
Cheekwood took a risk on Chihuly, because it hadn't raised enough money in advance to pay for the exhibit. (Neither Andrews nor Chihuly would disclose the cost).
The May-October exhibit has exceeded the 40 percent increase organizers predicted. For the first two months, Cheekwood took in six times as much in admissions as in the same period last year.
Cheekwood — which typically draws 120,000 people a year — had more than 100,000 visitors in June and July alone, said Vice President Allison Reid.
"It's been just an overwhelming outpouring of public support and interest," Reid said.
On busy nights, golf-cart shuttles bring people from far-off parking lots to the admissions desk, where the line snakes out the door.
Visitors wander along paths to discover Chihuly pieces tucked into gardens, standing in fields and floating in ponds. In the Japanese garden, red and gold bamboolike stalks of glass seem to grow among the real bamboo along a shady walkway.
A small rowboat floats precariously in the water garden, overflowing with orange, red and yellow spirals of glass. Beach-ball sized onions float in another pond.
The exhibit is so crowded — even with Cheekwood staying open an extra night each week — that visitors have to jockey for space along the shores of ponds to catch a glimpse and sit on the floor to watch a glassblowing documentary.
The exhibit in Seattle would be similar, but in a smaller space.
While Nashville's show was divided between the garden and a downtown museum, the Seattle Center exhibition would fill 12 rooms, a glass building and a surrounding garden with $50 million worth of glass art, including Chihuly's "The Sun," which is at Cheekwood this summer.
"I've designed a glass house in the middle of the garden, which will have a series of mine suspended from the ceiling and down the walls," Chihuly said. "I've never done anything like this, and I think it will be a really great space, so I'm going to try to make it as interesting and as iconic as possible, given the size I have to work in."
The exhibit would include 12,200 square feet of indoor exhibit space, plus the 4,500-square-foot "glass house" and a 20,800-square-foot art garden and plaza. There would be two gift shops — one with Chihuly merchandise and another for souvenirs.
Chihuly said the works in the exhibit would frequently change.
Regarded as master
Chihuly, a Tacoma native, works out of a studio in Ballard. He is regarded as a master of contemporary glass art, and his work has been displayed around the world, including in Jerusalem and Venice.
His shows have been wildly successful across the United States.
But for all his national and international appeal, the last exhibit of Chihuly's work in Seattle was in 1992.
Chihuly is sometimes criticized in Seattle as too commercial, too self-promoting. Some complain he doesn't do his own glass art (he oversees a workshop, where he is more a director of the work than hands-on participant.)
In Seattle, Chihuly is in the unusual position of courting a city for support.
To sweeten the pot, the Space Needle Corp. recently agreed to include more outdoor open space in the design, and has promised $2 million for an artist-designed playground for kids.
In all, the Space Needle Corp. said it would spend $12 million to $15 million on the project.
The proposal is tempting to Seattle Center officials, who face budget problems. The Center must generate revenue to cover two-thirds of its own budget. It ended last year at a loss, and has cut back on custodial staff and parking attendants to save money.
A couple of years ago, it seemed likely that the city would ask voters to help fund Center improvements, but other needs have gained more political steam.
Chihuly Corp. has insisted on maintaining complete control over the exhibition in Seattle, as it did in Nashville.
Chihuly traveled to Cheekwood and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts to approve the sites.
Then his corporation in Seattle selected the pieces, decided where they would go, as well as dictating everything from what type font was used in marketing materials to how items were displayed in the gift shop.
The merchandise "is selling like crazy," said Cheekwood gift-shop manager Christy Hager, who turned over half her shop to Chihuly merchandise. She said she watched one customer walk away with two glass pieces, which sell for between $5,000 and $7,000 apiece.
At the Frist, chief curator Mark Scala said he is aware of the controversy over whether Chihuly is a legitimate artist or a "craft artist." He compares the way Chihuly lets other artists do the hands-on work to Andy Warhol's factory.
In a glowing biography of Chihuly for the exhibition guidebooks, Scala called him "a master who deeply respects the traditions of his medium while orchestrating dazzling and transformative experiences that expand the expressive properties of the glassmaker's art."
His words are similar to those in Chihuly's own marketing materials. Scala said that doesn't bother him. It's true, he said.
"Every artist should be as good a self-promoter as Chihuly is," he said.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.