Glass Art in the Heart of Seattle Center

Updated information: Instead of going ahead with the 44,000 square foot Dale Chihuly glass art exhibit, the city will now seek public bids to compete with the project. A bidding process, however, hasn’t yet been worked out.  A Seattle Center spokeswoman says there was too much criticism over the lack of public input. In Friday morning’s Seattle Times, Space Needle CEO Ron Sevart said, “We think that the point of view that this hasn’t been a public process is contrary to the way we’ve approached this.”

New idea for Seattle Center:  Having lived in Seattle now for 17 years, I know that getting new ideas and projects off the ground can be a long, drawn-out process. We often try to be inclusive of every group that wants a voice — especially if the idea involves an iconic part of Seattle, like the Seattle Center. The newest idea to replace the Fun Forest (kiddie rides)  next to the Space Needle is an exhibition of glass art by world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. The project should be well vetted before going ahead, and that being said, it appears that much thought and planning has gone into the plans to create a new ‘art experience’ at the Space Needle.

Chihuly Presentation. I was one of a number of local PR and marketing professionals invited to a presentation at the Space Needle to further explain the project, and frankly, solicit our support. We heard from Ron Sevart, CEO of the Space Needle, Owen Richards, project architect, as well as Britt Cornette, Chihuly project manager. Sevart explained that the Fun Forest is going away. That part isn’t really negotiable, and the Fun Forest rides don’t actually look so fun anymore. As I understand it, this is all part of the Century 21 Master Plan for the Seattle Center. The Wright family, who owns the Space Needle, approached Chihuly Studio to come up with an exhibition unlike any other. There are a number of conditions of the Master Plan that have to be met, and it appears this project does that. According to Jeff Wright, Chairman of the Space Needle LLC, the basic concepts for the project have been approved by the City’s Design Commission and technical drawings are going out for bid. Construction is expected to begin near the end of this year, with completion expected by mid 2011.

Let’s talk money. The Wrights and Chihuly Studio are putting up the money, so taxpayers aren’t on the hook. Rather, the Chihuly exhibit is expected to pay nearly double the lease amount that the Fun Forest has been paying, which would mean about $500,000 (or more) annually in lease money to the Seattle Center. In addition, a 5% admissions tax could bring in upwards of $300,000 to the City of Seattle, based on estimates of 400,000 visitors a year. It would mean new construction jobs, and then the jobs it would take to run the exhibit. Sevart didn’t announce an admissions price, but said there would be a number of discounts, and prices would be ‘in line’ with other exhibits. Tickets would be distributed for school kids and seniors, through programs that support art.

It’s green. The new exhibit will be environmentally friendly by removing 30,000 square feet of asphalt, and instead of replacing the current building next to the Fun Forest, it will be remodeled (not torn down) and ‘made green’ to further reduce any carbon footprint. There’s been some talk about the fence that would surround the exhibit, and the team has done it’s best to camoflauge it with greenery and landscaping. You certainly need a way to keep the sometimes rowdy Bumbershoot and Bite of Seattle crowds away from the glass.

Here’s what’s cool —  the lighting. Regardless of your take on Dale Chihuly and his glass artwork, he is very well-known around the world and regarded by many to be “one of the great living artists of our time.” And he lives here. He’s a hometown guy (even if he did grow up in Tacoma.)  The exhibit calls for a dramatic glass house, showcasing various pieces of art in a space that could also be used for weddings, or corporate events. But what Sevart described is how the exhibit and surrounding gardens will appear one way during the daytime hours, while at night, strategic lighting will completely change the look of the exhibits and the glass house will be lit to  ‘glow’ next to the Needle. I asked Billy O’Neill, with Chihuly, if all the art would be new and custom designed for this project.  O’Neill said that’s still in discussion and part of the creative process, but some of the key pieces would be. There would be an area for interactive art, a cafe, indoor glass exhibit and of course, a gift shop.

Take a look. I encourage people to check out the project beyond what they’ve read in the paper, or seen on TV. In fact, the city will seek public comment about the proposed Dale Chihuly exhibit and other potential uses for the former Fun Forest site next Tuesday, March 30, at 6:30 p.m. at Center House at Seattle Center. I think this is an opportunity to create another big draw in the heart of the city, bringing in more tourists and money at a time when the city’s economy could use a boost.


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