Seattle, WA - Eight years ago one of the few open parcels of land in downtown Seattle was a desolate brown field bordering the Puget Sound waterfront and ringed by the city’s skyline. The eight-and-a-half acre property, a former fuel storage and transfer site for Union Oil of California, was in the final stages of an environmental cleanup and was sliced by a major street artery and an active railroad. Next weekend that site will open as the Olympic Sculpture Park, a lush panoramic space for public art designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architects that connects downtown Seattle to the water’s edge in a series of shifting, subtly choreographed vistas.
Founded by the Seattle Art Museum, it features 21 sculptures by renowned artists, most of them recently acquired for the park. Entering from the street through a sleek pavilion, visitors can walk toward an amphitheater with grassy terraces and the valley beyond, where “Wake” (2002-3), 10 wavelike steel plates by Richard Serra, evokes the ripples of Puget Sound in the distance.
People can roam among the massive plates, which will be incorporated into future dance and theater performances. From there, visitors might stroll across Elliott Avenue on a bridge crowned with Alexander Calder’s “Eagle,” a 39-foot-tall sculpture from 1974 in painted steel that echoes the industrial cranes on the water.
This $85 million park and another much-heralded project — an $86 million expansion of the Seattle Art Museum that is to open in May — are byproducts of a local explosion of wealth that has seeded major private collections and a growing passion for the arts.
Virginia Wright, who with her husband, the financier Bagley Wright, has been at the forefront of collecting contemporary art in Seattle and has served on the museum’s board since 1959, credits the change in the art climate to locally based entrepreneurial companies. “There wasn’t much going on until the 1980s and 1990s,” she said. “It’s companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks in such a big way — not just for the people directly involved but all the others who invested in them. That made us all have more money to spend on art.”
Jon Shirley, chairman of the museum’s board, came to Seattle in 1983 and worked at Microsoft for seven years as president and chief operating officer. After he retired in 1990, he and his wife, Mary, became museum patrons and aggressive collectors of postwar art.