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Originally published Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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A museum's metamorphosis

Wow. Talk about a transformation! Seeing the Wing Luke Asian Museum burst out of the dark former garage that once encased it and open up...

Seattle Times art critic

Wow. Talk about a transformation! Seeing the Wing Luke Asian Museum burst out of the dark former garage that once encased it and open up its own spacious, light-struck building is like watching a butterfly spread its wings.

Working with the boarded-up remains of the old East Kong Yick Building, originally a rooming house and hotel, architect Rick Sundberg designed a renovation that's part archaeology, part contemporary architecture. He retained a palimpsest of the building's early 20th-century past, saving some original walls and floors, an ornate tin ceiling, metal-plated firedoors, layers of paint, assorted furnishings, even the ghost of an old mural. He recognized the defining strength of two long lightwells that cut through the building and kept them as central elements of his design.

Sundberg, of the Seattle firm Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, is known for his polished expansion of the Frye Art Museum and thoughtful attention to the display of art. For this project, a community-based museum of history and culture, he worked with a number of local artists to incorporate artworks into the building. Wing Luke also features one gallery devoted strictly to art exhibitions, beginning with an homage to the late Seattle artist George Tsutakawa, known for his local fountains. The gallery is named in his honor.

In addition, Sundberg chose Tsutakawa's son Gerry, a Seattle sculptor and friend of Sundberg, to create an artwork for the building exterior. Gerry Tsutakawa (whose 9-foot bronze "Mitt" is a landmark outside Safeco Field) conceived a fan-shaped steel canopy to cover the museum's main entrance and added sleek, asymmetrical bronze handles for the doors.

A "Sweet" greeting

Step under the canopy, through the front door, and you'll be greeted by a big, fanciful wind chime, a chandelier-shaped assortment of colorful porcelain bells and balls, gently swaying from the ceiling of the entrance hall. The chime, made by Seattle artist Saya Moriyasu, is populated by a host of ceramic faces meant to represent the coming together of pan-Asian ancestors with museum visitors in an auspicious array of symbols: There are eight hanging strands, because that's a lucky number, and 108 bells (a reference to a Buddhist tradition) to help clear away personal obstacles.

You'll find another reference, too — one that seems unavoidable in museums these days. That is money, and those who donate it.

Besides offering a "Sweet Hello" to visitors as its title proclaims, Moriyasu's artwork functions as a public thank-you to those who donated between $5,000 and $10,000 to the capital campaign, and does it in a charming way. Just inside the entrance, a stand holds wooden fans, engraved with donors' names. Visitors are encouraged to participate by wafting a fan to make the wind chime sway and the bells chime. That way, Moriyasu says, they will add their energy to that of the museum contributors — a lovely image, and fun, besides.

"Sweet Hello" is one of several commissioned artworks intended to honor museum donors. Across the entrance hall you'll see Diem Chau's "Family Dinner," a formal sculptural display that builds on the iconic image of the rice bowl and its many implications, incorporating names of those who contributed $1,000 to $5,000. Those who gave $10,000 to $100,000 get to see their names light up as part of Susie Jungune Lee's "Footsteps" installation, gracefully integrated into the risers of the Grand Stairway.

Two more art installations, one by Ron Ho and Stewart Wong, and another by Cheryll Leo-Gwin, are being reconfigured from their former incarnations at the old museum. In advance of the museum's public opening, the exhibitions and some of the artworks were still works in process. On one of my visits, Erin Shie Palmer and Susie Kozawa were busy in the lightwells installing "Letter Cloud" and "Echoing Home," their collaborative sound and image artworks.

Fluid imagery

From the west lightwell you can enter the George Tsutakawa Gallery and its inaugural exhibition, "Flow, Form and Function: The Fountains of George Tsutakawa."

Tsutakawa (1910-97) was born in Seattle and spent time in Japan while growing up. He studied art at Broadway High School and the University of Washington, but it was his friend Mark Tobey who suggested that Tsutakawa look to his roots and incorporate a more Japanese aesthetic in his artwork. "Flow, Form and Function" will trace the progression of Tsutakawa's early prints and paintings to his later sculptural works and public fountains. All the art is on loan from the Tsutakawa family, who worked with curator Tracey Fugami to organize the exhibition.

Fugami points out that the fluidity of Tsutakawa's early imagery, as well as the flow of his Sumi ink, easily suggest the direction his artistry would eventually take. Tsutakawa's fountains are Pacific Northwest icons, from the well-known 1950s "Fountain of Wisdom" at the main branch of Seattle's public library to the campus hub "Centennial Fountain" at Seattle University. For Fugami, assembling the exhibition, the point was clear: "The whole show leads up to a working fountain."

Exhibits by committee

Wing Luke exhibitions director Michelle Kumata says the long-range purpose of the George Tsutakawa Gallery is to showcase the work of a variety of Asian-American artists. Tsutakawa is certainly a major figure, yet I couldn't help wondering why the opening show in a museum that takes pride in being inclusive and community-based had excluded so many other important names — artists such as Paul Horiuchi, Fay Chong and Johsel Namkung. Kumata says that decision was made in the Wing Luke's usual way, by committee.

"It's more in line with how we develop exhibits with groups instead of one individual making decisions," said Kumata, who formerly worked at The Seattle Times. In this case, an advisory committee decided that the best way of fundraising for the gallery was to rally around one well-known name. As a prominent early supporter of the museum, Tsutakawa seemed like the obvious choice. Other Tsutakawa family members — including daughter Mayumi, a former Wing Luke trustee and curator, and her brother Gerry, the sculptor — have also been active in the museum and helped with fundraising.

"Because the museum and the Tsutakawa family have a long and close relationship, the family was willing to help lead a campaign that would name the gallery after their father," said museum director Beth Takekawa. "Their one condition was that the gallery needs to present and promote not just pioneer artists but also the work of contemporary and emerging artists."

Artist Alan Lau says the committee system is intended to be anti-elitist, but doesn't always work perfectly. "It might have some warts, but I don't think there are any big pimples," he maintains. "Some shows work better than others. Sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen."

So much energy has gone into getting the new museum up and running, long-range exhibition planning has had to take a back seat. This summer, another committee will convene to start planning future shows. "Flow, Form and Function: The Fountains of George Tsutakawa" will be on display until December. After that, the museum will host a traveling show called "Still Present Pasts: Korean Americans and the 'Forgotten War.' "

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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