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Originally published November 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 29, 2007 at 3:04 PM

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A report card for new Seattle Art Museum

Six months have slipped by since Seattle Art Museum opened its downtown expansion, and after the huge drumroll of anticipation for the new...

Seattle Times art critic

Six months have slipped by since Seattle Art Museum opened its downtown expansion, and after the huge drumroll of anticipation for the new venue, it's time for a reality check on how things are going. The museum is definitely bigger, but on a recent visit I found it still grappling with familiar issues of identity and priorities. The first traveling shows in the new special-exhibitions galleries top off a list of missed opportunities — and what about those climbing admission prices?

The recently installed headliner "Japan Envisions the West: 16th-19th Century Japanese Art from the Kobe City Museum" is a tribute to the excellent connections of SAM curator Yukiko Shirahara and to the diplomacy between Seattle and its sister city Kobe. Well-researched and full of intriguing tidbits, the exhibition carries a message tucked among its grand painted screens, woodblock prints, ceramics, glassware and other decorative arts — the importance of trade to strengthen bonds between nations, then and now. (That's where exhibit sponsors such as Nintendo and Starbucks figure in.) The catalog boasts messages from the mayors of both Seattle and Kobe.

The show itself has plenty to offer. The problem is in the packaging.

Rooted in Japanese history and scholarship, "Japan Envisions the West" would have been perfectly suited to the Seattle Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park. But set against white walls in the tall expanse of the special exhibitions gallery downtown, the artworks diminish. Roam your eye over the room and it looks dry and uninviting. "Japan Envisions the West" would shine in a more intimate setting, with warmer colored walls and cozier viewing opportunities to help us focus on the details — what this show is all about. Installed downtown, "Japan" puts the brakes on the momentum SAM leaders have tried so hard to create. It feels like an afterthought.

Much more alluring are the big, adorable canvases in "Gaylen Hansen: Three Decades of Painting," hanging in adjacent galleries. The exhibit shows off the sly humor and down-home sophistication of Eastern Washington's ruling painter, an utterly delightful experience. But it points to a missed opportunity of another sort.

"Gaylen Hansen," organized by the Washington State University Museum of Art in Pullman, is mostly drawn from work that was in the artist's studio and covers only recent decades of his 65-year career. Wouldn't it have made more sense for SAM to curate its own full-scale retrospective, searching out paintings that would illustrate the full range and origins of Hansen's work — and document it with a definitive catalog? With the artist now 85, it's doubtful that well-deserved survey will take place during his lifetime.

Like the retrospective of Seattle artist Fay Jones that SAM hung in the 1990s, the Hansen exhibition was organized out of town and accepted by SAM as a traveling show. Why has Washington's premier museum relinquished its leadership and authority in showcasing the leading artists of our region?

Obviously SAM leaders have been distracted with expansion and a fundraising blitz that leapt unannounced from $180 million to more than $200 million. But with all that money changing hands and the announcement of promised gifts of art valued at a billion dollars, its hard to fathom another opportunity SAM let slip.

Jacob Lawrence's knockout 1946 painting "The Lovers" — long on loan to SAM from Mrs. Harpo Marx and a poster child for the museum — is gone: sold at auction by the Marx heirs. In an e-mail communication, deputy director and curator of collections Chiyo Ishikawa said the museum "wanted the painting and made every effort within our power to acquire it for SAM's collection."

A lawyer for the Marx estate, A. Edward Ezor, recalls things differently. He said SAM had two chances to make a deal on the painting. When the court auction entered a second phase of bidding at $446,750, SAM bowed out. Ezor said the painting sold to a New York dealer for $570,000. It had been on loan to SAM since the 1980s.

How could this happen? Especially now, since SAM officials want so badly to be associated with Lawrence that they dedicated a special gallery downtown to him and his wife, painter Gwendolyn Knight. SAM owns only two Lawrence paintings, a few drawings and a number of his prints — not an authoritative holding. When the gallery first opened, museum officials announced it would not be administered by the curatorial department but be part of the museum's education wing.

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Lawrence is one of the great American artists and spent his last decades in Seattle. Now "The Lovers" — that singular, highly personal and gorgeous painting of his — is gone. It's unlikely another of such distinction will come along, and if it does, the price will no doubt be much higher. Another Lawrence painting, "The Builders," was recently purchased for the White House for $2.5 million.

There is one opportunity SAM hasn't overlooked: bumping up admission prices.

Before the expansion, admission was $7 (seniors and students are discounted). The special exhibition charge for the Isamu Noguchi show in 2005 was $10.

When SAM reopened in May, regular admission nearly doubled to $13. But that didn't last long. It's already been pushed up to $15, with a special exhibition charge for "Japan" and Gaylen Hansen.

And you can plan on paying more soon. For the show of Roman art from the Louvre coming in February, admission will soar to $20. (That's the same price charged by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.) SAM spokeswoman Cara Egan points out that individual museum memberships start at $60 and allow unlimited admission to the museum for a year.

Will those prices affect attendance? Who can tell? At MoMA in New York, despite the hefty entrance fee, the galleries are packed with visitors from around the world. At SAM, Egan says attendance is up substantially from its pre-expansion levels.

But SAM is no MoMA. On a recent afternoon, the Seattle museum was far from hopping. Two guards hung out at the Second Avenue entrance with no one else in sight. Downstairs at First and Union, the vast banklike lobby was mostly deserted. The galleries, too, were quiet. Granted, it wasn't a peak time for visitors. But I couldn't help but look around at all the empty space and wonder: What's ahead for SAM?

Sheila Farr:

sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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