Olympic Sculpture Park



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Olympic Sculpture Park
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2901 Western Avenue
Seattle, Washington
United States

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New-York based wife/husband design practice Weiss/Manfredi proved themselves wizards of the Emerald City when they magicked a previous brown space into the gloriously green Olympic Sculpture Park.

Open daily from just before sunrise to just after sunset, this park with beautiful views of Mt. Rainier and Elliott Bay is located only half a mile from the Space Needle and we’re sure would impress even the overly discerning Dr. Frasier Crane.  

When looking at the park’s lush carpet of green amidst Seattle’s grey sky and cityscape it’s hard to believe that Olympic Sculpture Park is built on land formerly as bleak. Used for years as an oil transfer station, the parcel for the park was taken over by the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) after then SAM director Mimi Gates (step-mother to THE Bill Gates) told Martha Wyckoff of The Trust for Public Land about the idea while on a fishing trip in Mongolia… apparently flying almost 8,600 miles to fish is a thing rich people do. Having huge collections of outdoor art is also an activity they seem fond of. The idea originated not with Gates, but with fellow SAM trustees and Microsoft cohorts John and Mary Shirley. The story involves the couple staring at their garden (I like to imagine them holding martinis and wearing monocles), realizing that their collection had outgrown their space, and yelling to an assistant to “fetch Mimi on the phone, we’ve an idea!” Actually, everything I’ve read indicates that they are down to earth, generous, and not fussy Monopoly Man types. Truth is, as the main benefactors of the park they donated $30 million as well as numerous pieces from their personal collection to make the dream a reality. They also had naming rights and instead of calling it the “John and Mary are Awesome At Art Park”, named it after the mountain range surrounding the area. 

Though a reflection of a devotion to art and generosity, the park has not been without controversy. The Z-shaped space goes over the freeway, train-tracks, and eventually makes its way down to the beach. I bet you’re thinking that environmentalists threw a fit? The architects specifically designed the waterfront portion as a sandy slope in order to encourage algae growth to feed Chinook salmon, got rid of a bunch of gross industrial waste, and provided a much needed green space Downtown. In this case it was those pesky train enthusiasts who went off the rails. In order to acquire the land for the park, the Waterfront Streetcar, a favorite of tourists and locals alike, had to be shutdown despite efforts by the transit system to redesign their carbarn to fit into the park’s aesthetics. The public railed against the project at the time, but ultimately seem to have lost their train of thought on the issue. 

Despite complaints that you can’t touch or play on the art (but they always let me walk on the Mona Lisa when I visit the Louvre!) the park has become well-loved by the public. If you are in the area and long to see some larger than life art, a breathtaking view of the Puget Sound, or just feel like getting some exercise after too many frappuccinos the John and Mary are Awesome At Art Park Olympic Sculpture Park is definitely worth the free admission. 




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Here is what Wikipedia says about Olympic Sculpture Park

The Olympic Sculpture Park, created and operated by the Seattle Art Museum, is a park, free and open to the public, in Seattle, Washington that opened on January 20, 2007. The park consists of a 9-acre (36,000 m2) outdoor sculpture museum and beach. The park's lead designer was Weiss/Manfredi Architects, who collaborated with Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture, Magnusson Klemencic Associates and other consultants. It is situated at the northern end of the Seattle seawall and the southern end of Myrtle Edwards Park. The former industrial site was occupied by the oil and gas corporation Unocal until the 1970s and subsequently became a contaminated brownfield before the Seattle Art Museum proposed to transform the area into one of the only green spaces in Downtown Seattle.

As a free-admission outdoor sculpture park with both permanent and visiting installations, it is a unique institution in the United States. The idea of green space for large, monumental sculpture in Seattle was first discussed between Virginia and Bagley Wright, Mary and Jon Shirley (former president of Microsoft and Chairman of the Seattle Art Museum Board of Directors at the time), and then Seattle Art Museum director (and wife of William Gates Sr.) Mimi Gardner Gates. The idea grew further during a discussion in 1996 between Robert Measures, Martha Wyckoff, and Mimi Gardner Gates while stranded on a fly fishing trip in Mongolia due to a helicopter crash. Wyckoff, being a trustee of the Trust for Public Land, soon after began an effort to identify possible locations for the park.

A $30 million gift from Mary and Jon Shirley established them as foundational donors. As part of constructing the sculpture park, $5.7 million were spent transforming 1,000 feet (300 m) of the seawall and underwater shoreline inside Myrtle Edwards park. A three level underwater slope was built with 50,000 tonnes of riprap. The first level of the slope is large rocks to break up waves. The second is a flat "bench" level to recreate an intertidal zone. The lower level is covered with smaller rocks designed to attract sealife and large kelp. It is hoped that this recreated strand will help revitalise juvenile salmon from the Duwamish River and serve as a test for future efforts.

Maintenance of the sculptures has been an ongoing challenge. Bordering the Puget Sound, a large body of salt water, the park environment has been corrosive to pieces like Bunyon's Chess, made primarily of exposed wood and metal. Tall painted pieces such as Eagle need to be watched for damage from birds and their waste. Maintenance of these large structures is expensive, requiring scaffolding or boom lifts. The paint on Eagle is also easily damaged by the mechanical clipping of grass near the base of its installation, requiring the gardeners to use scissors instead of a lawn mower near the sculpture. Conservation work on Bunyon’s Chess was completed by the museum in 2018.

The Seattle Art Museum regularly presents temporary, site-specific works at the Olympic Sculpture Park, including Victoria Haven’s Blue Sun (April 2, 2016 to March 5, 2017);Spencer Finch’s The Western Mystery (April 1, 2017 to March 17, 2019); and the newest installation Octopus Wrap (May 11, 2019 to March 8, 2020), by Brazilian artist Regina Silveira.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Olympic Sculpture Park.