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Art park Seattle brings sculpture to a former dump site

SEATTLE -- It's about the Northwest and its mountains, salt water, clouds and forests.

And it's about art -- art that is alive, that seemingly changes with every snowflake, sunbeam and soft breeze.

After nearly a decade's wait, the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park is slated to open to the public Saturday. The $85 million, nine-acre park -- a former contaminated industrial site -- zigzags from the upscale Belltown neighborhood to a driftwood-covered beach along Puget Sound. Its architectural design and landscaping make it almost impossible to tell that portions of the park are suspended over a bustling street and a set of heavily used railroad tracks.

"We aspired to create a sculpture park at the intersection of the city and the water, and to define a new model for bringing art to the public," said Marion Weiss of Weiss/Manfredi Architects, a New York City-based firm that designed the project. "Our intent is to establish connections where separations existed, inventing a setting that implicitly questions where the art begins and the park ends."

The project, funded through a massive capital campaign, features more than 20 pieces, including works from the museum's collection, sculptures commissioned for the park, loaned pieces and changing installations.

Prominent works include the nearly 40-foot red "Eagle" by Alexander Calder, and the titan-size "Wake," a series of five monumental pairs of curved steel forms by Richard Serra.

Each of the 10 plates used to build "Wake" weighs nearly 30,000 pounds. The rust-colored panels were fabricated in Germany, and eventually they'll turn dark amber in color, Serra said.

The minimalist sculptor -- who has created large public art pieces in New York City, San Francisco and elsewhere -- said it was an honor to be involved in the park's inaugural event.

Traditionally, art has only been accessible to a particular class, but efforts such as the Olympic Sculpture Park help make art more available to the community, he said.

"I think the opening of this park is a historic moment," Serra said during a tour of the park last week. "There's nothing else like this in the United States."

From native plantings in its gardens to salmon restoration efforts along the beach, the environment played a huge role in the development of the park, museum officials say.

From 1900 to 1975, the site was a fuel transfer and distribution center for Union Oil Co. of California. It took almost a decade for the company to remove nearly 120,000 tons of petroleum-contaminated soil from the property and treat millions of gallons of groundwater under an agreement with the state.

The museum paired up with the conservation group Trust for Public Land to acquire the property, which a developer had hoped to turn into condominiums, office space and a hotel.

"When we first saw these two brown lots, we had to have a lot of faith to buy them," said Jon Shirley, chairman of the museum's board of trustees.

Seattle Art Museum Director Mimi Gates described the sculpture park as "transformative." Not only has it turned a former industrial site into green space, it's also creating a cultural legacy for the region.

"Generations are going to grow up living with this art," Gates said.

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