Money Troubles Cloud Opening Of New Seattle Art Museum

It's big. It's beautiful and it's going to cost beaucoup bucks.

But just how much the new Seattle Art Museum will finally cost isn't known just yet.

As the opening ceremonies and events take center stage, the discussions on the $12 million cost-overrun claim by the museum's general contractor have faded into the background. For now.

Kathleen Parry, who has directed the museum construction, said the review of contractor Howard Wright's documents won't be completed until early next year. Mediation - if it should come to that - probably won't start until March.

But the cost-overrun claim is just the latest in a number of financial hurdles the museum has had to jump in order to get built.

Talks of building a new museum go as far back as the early 1970s. But early efforts get off to a bad start when discussions to build the museum at Westlake Mall collapsed in 1981 after the city was unable to condemn land needed for the museum.

In the next few years, the merits of various sites were debated and proposals to build the museum at the Seattle Center and at the former J.C. Penney building were among those seriously considered.

In 1982 the museum obtained the downtown Penney building after the company decided to close its downtown store - a property that later proved to be an important bargaining chip.

In July 16, 1984, museum officials announced an agreement to acquire the nearby Arcade block, bounded by First and Second avenues and Union and University streets. The deal involved cash, trading the Penney property, and assumption of the mortgage on the Arcade property. The new museum had a projected cost of about $50 million at that point.

On Oct. 1984, Robert Venturi was named the architect for the new project. According to the museum press release from December 1984, Venturi was expected to submit the design in late spring 1985, with hopes that the building would be open to the public in 1988. While visiting town in December, Venturi announced that Olson/Walker (later Olson/ Sundberg) Architects were chosen as the local associate architects on the project.

Seattle voters approved a $29.6 million levy to support construction of a new museum downtown on Sept. 16, 1986. Private contributions would raise the $25.4 million more needed for the project, then budgeted at $55 million.

On May 19, 1987, the model for the museum was unveiled to the public and the projected opening date was now set for sometime in 1990. By May 7, 1990, the museum cost was at $60.1 million, according to a museum press release.

Over the years the museum has received financial assistance from other sources. The National Endowment for the Humanities, for example, has donated $640,000 for construction of the library and purchase of equipment, and the federal agency also gave $525,000 to support the African, Oceania and the Americas collections and $650,000 for the Asian galleries downtown.

The museum also received $1 million from the Seattle Art Stabilization Project for operational expenses, and a $2 million endowment from Illsley Nordstrom to establish the Illsley Ball Nordstrom directorship.

Construction of the new museum began in June 1989. The project soon encountered problems - much of it centered on Wright's contention that Venturi's design documents were inadequate and faulty. Delays rippled through the project and completion dates were pushed back.

This past June, Howard Wright's $12 million cost-overrun claim became public. Museum director Jay Gates moved quickly to dispel doubts that the Dec. 5 opening was in jeopardy, and said the museum would not go back to the public for more money.

The Museum Development Authority review of Wright's claim documents, which was to have been completed in October, continues on as the MDA requests additional backup documents.

On Dec. 5, 1991, the new museum, now a $62 million project, opens.