The Heart of SAM
The Seattle Asian Art Museum resides in our original 1933 Art Deco building in the Olmsted-designed Volunteer Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Our renowned collection of Asian art has grown from its foundations of Chinese and Japanese art, and now includes works from India, Korea, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, the Philippines, and Vietnam. This gem-like historic landmark offers a rich dive into some of SAM’s traditional masterpieces along with contemporary Asian art.
The museum was designed by Carl F. Gould, a Paris-trained Seattle architect, and is now a heritage site. Gould created a sequence of small and large rooms that are ideal environments for the exploration of art. The building was renovated from 1991 to 1994 and renamed the Asian Art Museum.
From its early 20th-century roots as the Seattle Fine Arts Society to its transformation into a dynamic museum with three distinct venues, explore how the Seattle Art Museum evolved into a vital Seattle institution.
The Seattle Fine Art Society, the parent institution of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), is founded.
The Fine Art Society is renamed the Art Institute of Seattle under the presidency of Carl F. Gould, an architecture professor at the University of Washington. The Institute continues searching for a permanent facility while staging exhibitions at various venues.
Henry House, The Art Institute of Seattle.
The new president of the Art Institute of Seattle, Dr. Richard E. Fuller, and his mother, Mrs. Margaret E. MacTavish Fuller, offer the City of Seattle $250,000 for a museum building. The City agrees to service and maintain the building if the Fullers and the museum accept responsibility for its construction, operation, and collection. The Art Deco structure, designed by Carl F. Gould of Bebb and Gould, is to be located in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park. Construction begins.
Richard Fuller and his mother, Margaret E. MacTavish Fuller at the entrance to the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park.
The Seattle Art Museum (formerly the Art Institute of Seattle) opens its doors to the public on June 29, and attendance during the first day of operations surpasses 33,000. In its first year the museum hosts 346,287 visitors; the city’s entire population is around 365,000. The art on display includes the Fullers’ collection of Asian art, highlighted by Chinese jades and ceramics, complemented by examples of Japanese, Korean, and Indian art, as well as changing exhibitions of living Northwest artists. A gallery is regularly devoted to the display of color facsimiles of European art masterworks, standing in for original art.
Dedication ceremony, Mayor John F. Dore.
With the US entry into World War II, the museum supports the war effort by screening civilian defense films and allowing the use of the museum for the American Red Cross, air raid wardens, and civilian defense instruction. Mrs. Emma Stimson, a close friend of the Fullers, serves as acting director of the museum while Dr. Fuller serves in the US Army.
The museum’s first large-scale traveling exhibition, India: Its Achievements of the Past and Present, occupies 12 of SAM’s galleries for three months, initiating an ambitious changing exhibitions program.
Asian art scholar Sherman E. Lee arrives to serve as assistant director. He will bring treasured works of Japanese art to SAM and will help acquire the Samuel H. Kress Collection of European paintings for the museum.
Mrs. Donald E. Frederick donates the most significant work of Japanese art in SAM’s collection, the early 17th-century Poem Scroll with Deer, a portion of a scroll that is considered a National Treasure of Japan.
SAM hosts the landmark Official Japanese Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, receiving more than 73,000 visitors during the one-month run of the show. The exhibition brings SAM an elevated status as a venue for important international exhibitions.
The museum holds two of its most ambitious and important retrospectives to date: Mark Tobey Retrospective and Paintings and Drawings by Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh’s nephew, V. W. van Gogh, attends the latter show, along with a record 126,110 visitors.
The National Council on the Arts (later the NEA), the Seattle Foundation (which Dr. Fuller helped to found), the City of Seattle, and Dr. Fuller finance the acquisition and installation of Isamu Noguchi’s Black Sun in front of the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park. It is the NEA’s first commission in Seattle.
Dr. Fuller retires from the museum after serving forty years as director. He remains involved in both Director Emeritus and President Emeritus roles.
The museum hosts its first retrospective of the work of American master Jacob Lawrence. Lawrence and his wife, Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, moved to Seattle in 1970; they will live and work here for the next 30 years.
The rededicated Seattle Asian Art Museum opens on August 13 with a day of festivities that includes tours, folk art workshops, and performances by local dance and music groups, bringing more than 6,000 visitors to the museum. The new space allotted for Asian art allows for many more of the approximately 6,000 Asian art objects to go on display.
The Seattle Asian Art Museum temporarily closes and relocates SAM’s Asian art collection to the downtown location in preparation for the first significant renovation and expansion since the museum opened in 1933.
On February 8, 2020 the ribbon is officially cut to commemorate and celebrate the reopening of the newly renovated and expanded Asian Art Museum. Over 10,000 people visit during the Free Reopening Weekend to experience the groundbreaking thematic reinstallation of SAM’s Asian art collection inside the upgraded galleries. Organized to highlight artistic traditions that connect cultures across Asia, rather than grouping art by modern nation states, the museum’s curation is the only of its kind the Pacific Northwest and one of only a few museums in the United States dedicated to Asian art.
Be a part of our history—share your memories!
For generations, children and adults have climbed atop the famed camels flanking the front door of the Seattle Asian Art Museum before entering the building to experience art and culture from around the globe. Now you can share your pictures and memories with SAM and the community! Submit photos of you and your loved ones posing with the camels and tell us your story.Share Now