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Sunday, June 27, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Old Sam: A Museum Gets Ready To Be Born Again

I like to think that if Dr. Richard Fuller is looking down from heaven, he's pleased. Tomorrow, it will be 60 years since he opened the doors of his gift to Seattle citizens: the Seattle Art Museum, in Volunteer Park.

His passion was Asian art. Over the years, European, African and contemporary American art took over many of the galleries. The Volunteer Park building closed two years ago, when SAM moved into its new downtown space.

Now the original museum building, designed by Carl F. Gould, is being polished up to reopen as the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Asian art from SAM's rich collection - one of the most important Asian art collections in the nation - once again will fill it.

Goodbye, dust

The place shines, from new sandstone flooring and carpets to the silver-leaf ceiling of the foyer (bet you never noticed it in the building's dusty latter days). It has a repaired roof and new skylights, refurbished walls, an upgraded electrical system - the works.

The building is a classic Art Moderne showcase for the carved jades, snuff bottles, sculpture and folding screens Fuller collected, and that Seattleites have come to love. Much of it hasn't been seen for years, because of SAM's long-term space crunch.

There will be more to love when the building reopens: Korean art, Thai ceramics, Japanese folk art and Japanese textiles, which William Rathbun, the John A. McCone curator of Asian art, has done an outstanding job of adding to the collection in the past few years.

At last, there will be space to show the 7,000-piece Asian collections in depth - five galleries of Japanese art, five and a half of Chinese art, a large gallery devoted to Korean art, a gallery of Mughal Indian art, and a gallery and a half of Southeast Asian art.

The central Garden Court - remember the graceful Garden Court, with its fountain? - will once again be devoted to superlative South Asian stone sculpture. SAM's library of Asian art material all will be housed at Volunteer Park, available to scholars for research. All of this is in addition to the five galleries of Asian art in the downtown museum. Nothing that's there will be moved or disturbed.

Now that I've whetted your appetite, I have to drop the other shoe: It will be at least a year before the building reopens.

When the museum moved downtown, there was talk of reopening the Volunteer Park building in time for tomorrow's anniversary. It couldn't be done that fast. The museum now sets the opening date for June 1994, but in private conversation, staffers say that's optimistic. Late July of next year is a more realistic date.

Contractors doing renovations finished their work last week. Now SAM's installation staff can begin an intensive six-month stint of designing and building new mounts for each of the 1,500 to 1,600 pieces to be displayed in the building. New display cases will be fabricated, in the same state-of-the-art style as those in use at SAM downtown. When all that is done, it will take an estimated six months longer to install the art in the galleries.

A matter of finance

It's impossible to talk about the building without talking money. Built in 1933 during the Great Depression, it cost the grand sum of $250,000. Thanks to inflation, refurbishing and reinstalling it will run an estimated $5.2 million. All of it will be raised from private gifts and grants.

Three million dollars of that amount already has been raised. Some has come through major gifts. Seattle art patron Evelyn Foster gave $1.5 million. The McCone Foundation gave $1 million to endow the position of curator of Asian Art - the post Rathbun holds. Other substantial gifts have come from Mary Robinson, Libby Molitor, the McCaw Foundation and Jean Radford. Grants flowed in from the Korea Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, PONCHO and the state of Washington.

Another $2.2 million is needed. It's hard to imagine a cause closer to the heart of Seattle's cultural life. An important portion of our population, our commerce and our view of the world come from and through Asia. It's part of the definition of who we are, as a city and as human beings.

The museum in Volunteer Park isn't just a parking place for art; it's an emotional link with our past and an investment in our future.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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