Thousands join 35-hour-long party to celebrate SAM's makeover

As Isaac Wenze and his mom slowly walked into the Seattle Art Museum on Saturday, the 11-year-old boy cast his eyes toward the ceiling and his mouth gaped open.

Isaac stopped in his tracks, his mom and her small service dog a few steps ahead — they were among the hundreds of people crowding into the downtown building for the museum's grand reopening. Isaac wasn't alone gazing upward at the brand-new ceiling artwork in the entry: white cars suspended with rods of colored electric light shooting from each vehicle, by artist Cai Guo-Qiang.

"I think the cars are awesome," said Isaac, a fifth-grader from West Seattle. "It shows the difference between destruction derby and cars flying in the air with spikes in them."

When the museum opened its doors at 10 a.m. for a 35-hour weekend party that includes free admission, Gov. Christine Gregoire and Mayor Greg Nickels joined the crowds. Both announced that the remodeled and expanded museum will put Seattle on the global artistic map.

But for eager museum-goers, the speeches and a series of musical performances were just preliminaries. People could be spotted shuffling backward to appreciate the works of artists ranging from abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock to aboriginal artists.

One man proclaimed that a work by Marcel Duchamp was unlike any he had ever seen. A woman remarked that a John Singer Sargent piece gave her inspiration for a painting she is working on. Another inspected the Pollock piece, commenting on the "blobs" of paint.

"This is phenomenal," said Diane Ahroni of Magnolia as she peered at works by Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence. "It's better than the old one [museum]."

Ahroni, 52, said she is a lifelong fan of the Seattle Art Museum and had long awaited the renovation. She was the first person in line when she arrived at 7:30 a.m.

More than 8,000 people had entered the building by 5:30 p.m. Saturday, museum officials said.

The museum had been closed since January 2006 during the more-than-$80 million renovation that expanded it to 268,000 square feet. Cara Egan, the museum's manager of communication, said there are 2,400 items on display in the new facility — three times as many as were previously shown.

Exhibits include "SAM at 75: Building a Collection for Seattle," more than 200 newly acquired works donated by collectors, along with Native American and African art, European galleries and modern art. A new public space at the main entrance leads to the Art Ladder, formerly called the Grand Staircase.

Museum docents and security were tucked into nearly every corner of the facility Saturday morning.

One guard said he was glad he was working the daylight hours during the opening weekend stretch. He said he couldn't imagine what his co-workers would endure while keeping an eye on the post-Cinco de Mayo celebration crowds at midnight.

Once the 35-hour party ends at 9 p.m. today, museum staff will have a day to rest. Then the museum will resume its normal schedule — which includes being closed Mondays except for limited hours for members and their guests.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or

"It's a very impressive space," observes James Galvin as he photographs one of nine suspended cars in artist Cai Guo-Qiang's "Inopportune: Stage One." (ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

SAM reopening marathon

Continues today until 9 p.m., 1300 First Ave., Seattle. Admission is free, but timed entry tickets (available on site) are required. Admission also will be free at Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) at Volunteer Park. (206-654-3100 or www.seattleart

Free shuttles will run among Seattle Art Museum, SAAM and the Olympic Sculpture Park, leaving from Second Avenue and University Street, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. Shuttles also will run from YMCA locations on East Madison, in Shoreline and in Burien.

Parking: Street parking is free on Sundays. Paid spots are available in the WaMu Parking Garage. Entrance is below the SAM building on Union Street between First and Second avenues. Hours today: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. For more information on parking: 206-264-8444. Other paid lots are available.