The story of the Seattle Art Museum begins in 1906 with the formation of the Seattle Fine Arts Society. In 1931, one of its members, Dr. Richard E. Fuller, forged a critical partnership with the City of Seattle, donating the funds and much of his extensive Chinese and Japanese art collection to create the Seattle Art Museum, with the provision that the city would maintain the facility. Dr. Fuller and his mother, Margaret McTavish Fuller, commissioned architect Carl F. Gould, former president of the Fine Arts Society, to build the art deco museum in Volunteer Park. In the first 6 months after it opened to the public in 1933, 300,000 people visited the Seattle Art Museum.
Dr. Fuller served as museum director for 40 years (from 1933 to 1973), showcasing his fine collection of Asian art and acquiring numerous works by contemporary Northwest artists—many of whom the museum employed—such as Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Kenneth Callahan. Sherman Lee, associate director from 1948 to 1952, greatly enhanced SAM’s holdings with acquisitions such as the Kress Collection of European Painting—a selection of works collected by dime-store magnate Samuel H. Kress, who disseminated more than 3,000 artworks to some 90 museums between 1927 and 1961.
Dorothy Malone, one of SAM’s four original employees, fondly recalls the museum's early days in this 1983 interview from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.
SAM’s first “blockbuster” was the 1940 exhibition of Japanese works from the collection of Manson F. Backus, which drew an astounding 73,000 visitors. But that success paled in comparison to the traveling exhibition The Treasures of Tutankhamun, which SAM mounted in 1978 at the Seattle Center. The exhibition was an international sensation (many recall Steve Martin’s hit song “King Tut”), drawing 1.3 million visitors in Seattle.
King Tut’s popularity, coupled with the astonishing acquisition of Katherine C. White’s famous collection of African Art in 1981 (part donation, partly funded by the Boeing Company), encouraged SAM’s leaders to expand beyond the original Volunteer Park facility. In 1986, Seattle voters approved a $29.6 million levy, with the museum raising $35 million more, to build a 150,000-square-foot facility on the west edge of Seattle’s downtown. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Robert Venturi of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, the museum opened in late 1991 and served as a catalyst for the stunning, ongoing revitalization of downtown Seattle.
Once the downtown SAM opened (with a breathtaking exhibition of Dale Chihuly’s glass works), the original building closed for renovation. It reopened in 1994 as the Seattle Asian Art Museum, a showcase for the museum’s world-renowned Asian collections and a community hub for Asian culture. From the start, the two facilities were deeply linked. In addition to sharing management and staff resources, the museum encouraged visitors to view both venues within one week for the price of one admission ticket—a practice that continues to this day.
With its success as a vibrant museum in two locations, museum leaders began to envision a third venue that could showcase outdoor sculpture, including remarkable works collected by local museum supporters. With that in mind, SAM, in partnership with the national land-conservation organization the Trust for Public Land, purchased the last remaining undeveloped property on Seattle’s central waterfront in December 1999. Then-mayor Paul Schell applauded SAM’s vision for a free park that would be “a place where residents and visitors can appreciate the beauty of our city and be inspired by artistic genius. It will be a legacy for our children, and for generations to come.”
The waterfront property, which eventually grew to a nine-acre park, opened in early 2007 as the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park—named by generous supporters Jon and Mary Shirley for its exquisite views over Elliott Bay of the Olympic Mountains. The park, designed by Weiss/Manfredi, immediately gained international attention, with seminal works by Richard Serra, Alexander Calder, Claes Oldenburg, Louise Bourgeois and other artists.
While the sculpture park was in development, SAM trustees adopted a plan to expand the downtown facility. They couldn't pass up the opportunity to collaborate on an adjacent building that would serve as Washington Mutual Bank's world headquarters and allow for a multi-phase expansion of SAM. Brad Cloepfil of Portland’s Allied Works Architecture designed a light-filled, open facility that connects seamlessly to the 1991 Venturi building. A unique arrangement with Washington Mutual enables SAM to occupy the new building in phases, from the 118,000 sq. ft. expansion that debuted in spring 2007—including additional gallery and public spaces, a new restaurant and an expanded store—to an eventual total of 300,000 square feet. Combined with the Venturi building, the future downtown SAM will someday occupy 450,000 sq. ft.