Seattle’s Lively Art Scene

Seattle looks striking at sunset.
Seattle’s downtown skyline is dramatically lit at dusk.

As a tourist, I’m not hard to please. I’m happy when I can view great art collections, then after dark, listen to live music. On a recent trip to Seattle I managed to get my fill of both. Between visits to the art galleries and museums, I enjoyed a lively nightlife that fully satisfied my appetite for live blues and jazz.

There are more than a half-million people in this sophisticated and vigorous city. The liveliest areas are Pioneer Square, the Pike Place Market, the waterfront and the Seattle Center.

For rock star lore, I visited Seattle’s Experience Music Project (EMP) at the Seattle Center, which opened in June 2000. Microsoft millionaire Paul Allen created EMP at a cost of US$ 240 million, in part to house his personal collection of Beatles memorabilia. He also wanted to provide a focus for pilgrims looking for traces of the famous Seattle musician Jimi Hendrix. EMP has displays ranging from stage costumes, posters and instruments to a high-tech recording studio where I could have cut my own CD in the digitally equipped sound booths.

Another technical marvel at the museum is the shoulder-slung computer included with admission price (US$ 20). This gizmo is destined to be a part of every major museum. The device allows visitors to listen to sound recordings, and to scan the displays to connect with Websites and digital archives.

EMP is impressive, but if you’re not a Hendrix fan you won’t get that much out of it. The curatorial focus is narrowly on the mainstream of American rock. The computer databanks that promised to hold the entire history of pop music came up blank when I did a search for some of my favorites from the distant past, like The Rezillos, Arthur Brown and Elvis Hitler.

Canadian architect Frank Gehry designed the EMP building around a motif of electric guitar bodies. This colorful jumble of organic curves caused a stir in the Emerald City even before it was built. As construction neared completion, Seattleites were polarized in their opinions about the museum. Three years later they still are. Some love the innovative design; others consider it a costly joke.

In addition to the EMP, the Seattle Center is home to the Space Needle; the Pacific Science Center, with its IMAX theater and planetarium; The Children’s Museum; the Fun Forest Amusement Park; and numerous arts organizations, including the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the Seattle Children’s Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Seattle Opera. The Space Needle and the center are remnants of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Inside one center building I watched 200 people practice square dancing. They ranged from novices to seasoned veterans, including a group of kids as young as four or five, decked out in western attire, who already moved like masters of the do-see-do. In a grassy area in the shadow of the Space Needle, another group performed martial arts set to Salsa music.

I always orient myself in Seattle by sighting on the Space Needle. Taking the glass-walled elevator to the top gave me an added sense of the city’s layout, though it did make me a bit dizzy. “On a clear day you can see Victoria from either the restaurant or the observation deck,” beamed the elevator operator, gesturing toward the distant fog bank. I looked, despite having yet to experience a cloudless day in Seattle.

The revolving restaurant atop the 602-foot (183.5 m) tower is a stylistic throwback to a 1960s vision of the future, complete with formica, glass and plastic furnishings and fixtures. After enjoying the view of the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges and the waters and islands of Puget Sound during my over-priced lunch break, I was ready for my next museum.

Ten minutes on the monorail and I was downtown. A short stroll brought me to the Seattle Art Museum, on University Street. The museum houses one of the most comprehensive art collections west of the Rockies. The collection is organized as a chronological survey, beginning with ancient Egyptian and Greek works through the medieval and renaissance periods, and ending with abstract contemporary art. There are also extensive samples of African, Asian and Northwest Coast Native American art.

A short walk uphill is the Frye Art Museum on Terry Ave. which houses one of America’s foremost collections of realistic art. This beautiful building and the collection are a legacy from Charles Frye, a Seattle butcher who made a fortune supplying Klondike gold miners in 1898. With the recent arrival of new curator Robin Held, the collection of romantic and realistic European and American paintings collected by Frye is being expanded to include diverse representational art. When I was there, Thomas Hart Benton’s work was the featured exhibit. Benton depicted America as it was in first half of the 20th century, painting scenes of everyday life among Ozarks dwellers, Chicago jazz musicians, southern African-Americans and West Coast urban pioneers. This artist’s vivid and colorfully realistic style has been dubbed “regionalism” by art critics.

The Space Needle is a popular attraction because it's hard to miss.
Left over from the 1962 World’s Fair, the Space Needle is a towering 602 feet (183.5 m) high.

Other excellent options for art viewing include the Seattle Asian Art Museum (1400 E. Prospect St.), the Nordic Heritage Museum (3014 N.W. 67th St.) or the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus. Then there are the many private art galleries, 30 of which are concentrated in Pioneer Square, with another 28 throughout the downtown area. At Foster/White Gallery (123 S. Jackson St.), in Pioneer Square, you can see contemporary local work that ranges from abstract paintings to sculpture, and blown glass art.

Seattle’s Pioneer Square is well known for a variety of live-music bars. In recent years, to stay competitive with the dance clubs, many of the venues have switched from live bands to canned dance music. I still got my fill of blues and jazz, but only about half of the pubs maintain the live-music tradition.

At the historic OK Hotel — like many Pioneer Square buildings, it’s about 120 years old — I caught a couple of sets from Little Bill and the Blue Notes. This classic five-piece blues band performed standards like Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Forty Days and Forty Nights and Reefer Man, as well as Little Bill’s original tunes. Little Bill blows a mean harmonica, and his gravely voice suggests that he has paid his dues.

Seattle at night presents lots of exciting prospects. Whether you enjoy theater, symphony, opera or ballet, you’ll find it here. Summer Nights at South Lake Union Park is a summer-long festival of performing arts that draws big-ticket artists such as Lyle Lovett, Chris Isaac and the Indigo Girls. The Bumbershoot Festival, held at the Seattle Center each year in early September, brings music and the arts together with more than 20 stages and more than 2,500 crafts booths.

Seattle’s showcases of art, music and theater have made Seattle a fabulous urban destination for art lovers of all sorts.

If You Go

Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau

www.seeseattle.org

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