Seattle Art Museum's Picasso exhibition, which ended Monday, set an attendance record and served as a well-timed success for the museum.

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David Narazaki visited the Picasso exhibition at Seattle Art Museum so many times — nearly every day and sometimes twice — that he came to be on a first-name basis with the artist.

“It’s just me, Pablo and the security guards,” the Seattle man said of his strategy of going in the evenings when crowds had dwindled.

Or: “Pablo has definitely helped business,” talking about how he’s seen more customers at Caffe Ladro, the coffee shop that he manages near the museum.

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How Narazaki — who knew little of Picasso before the show opened in October, other than that he was “the guy who painted the funny faces” — became so enamored of the legendary artist reflects how much the expansive exhibition captured imaginations and served as a well-timed success for the financially challenged museum and the businesses around it.

“Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris,” which ended Monday, was the museum’s most-attended exhibition since it moved to its downtown location from Volunteer Park in 1991. In SAM’s history, the Picasso show was second in attendance only to the 1978 King Tut exhibition, which was held at Seattle Center and drew 1.3 million visitors.

More than 400,000 people were expected to have seen the Picasso show by end of day Monday, far exceeding the staff’s conservative projection of 200,000.

The exhibition has generated buzz and been well-received critically.

Museum membership shot up from 30,000 last summer to more than 48,000 — an all-time SAM high and in the top 10 for museum memberships nationwide, according to museum staff.

SAM has forged new or closer partnerships with local organizations and tried different ways of reaching people — creating a smartphone app, for instance — that likely will continue for future shows.

Local restaurants, coffee shops and stores say the exhibition was a boon for them as well.

Perhaps most important, the show made money for the museum and boosted its confidence at a time when the organization desperately needed to do both.

“We needed to have this big win at this time,” SAM Director Derrick Cartwright said. “This is, almost on every level, a great success.”

Just the right time

The Picasso show, featuring more than 150 works in various media and spanning seven decades of the artist’s life, was the largest and most important exhibition of his work shown in the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle became the first of three U.S. cities to host the exhibition after SAM staff contacted Musée Picasso and found out the Paris museum, which houses many pieces from Picasso’s personal collection, was closing for renovation and that some pieces would be available for touring. The show couldn’t have come at a better time.

SAM has been facing tough financial challenges. It’s been struggling with the recession and a shortfall left after Washington Mutual imploded and left SAM stuck with office space the bank had agreed to lease from the museum for up to 25 years. Some second-guessed whether SAM had chosen wisely in expanding in 2007 — a move made possible in part because of WaMu’s agreement to rent the eight floors above the museum.

In response, the museum has trimmed staff, frozen positions, cut pay, announced a two-week closure and sought approval to borrow $10 million from its endowment.

The museum still plans to close Jan. 31 through Feb. 15 to save money.

But the success of the Picasso exhibit — along with a $10 million grant from JPMorgan Chase, which bought WaMu but didn’t assume its lease; a $5.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and an agreement with Nordstrom to lease office space vacated by WaMu — has eased the financial burden.

The museum now will likely borrow $7 million, rather than $10 million, from its endowment.

Cartwright won’t say what the museum spent to mount the Picasso exhibition or how much it’s made, citing confidentiality agreements with the Musée Picasso.

But he will say it’s one of the most ambitious — read expensive — exhibitions presented by the museum, and that the cost has been recouped and then some.

The exhibit’s financial success won’t solve all the museum’s problems, but “it goes a significant way,” Cartwright said. “The museum is in a much more stable place than it was a year ago.”

Power of Picasso

He attributes the show’s success, first and foremost, to the artist.

“Let’s credit Picasso and what he means,” Cartwright said. “If someone doesn’t leave the exhibit excited about what it means to be creative and innovative, then nothing can reach them.”

With less lead time and marketing dollars for this show than comparable blockbuster exhibits, SAM staff focused on developing partnerships with local organizations and on social media.

The museum held a preview party in June for some 150 organizations to brainstorm partnership ideas. Among the results: All who attended the Picasso exhibition received a SAM Card, entitling them to discounts at partnering restaurants, stores and theaters.

Staff built a Picasso smartphone app that offered more information to museum-goers than what was on exhibit labels. The museum gained about 7,000 new Facebook friends and nearly 5,000 Twitter followers through the show’s run.

The exhibition’s ripple effect, Cartwright said, shows the museum has a vital role to play downtown.

The Four Seasons Hotel Seattle, across the street from the museum, reports at least a 30 percent increase in occupancy from October to now, and its ART Restaurant & Lounge had a 25 percent increase in business, a spokeswoman said. A Picasso package — which included VIP tickets to the show — was one of the hotel’s most popular.

Two blocks away, Wild Ginger restaurant brought in extra servers for some shifts or kept people on for extra hours to accommodate increased business.

Even a store some four blocks up First Avenue — Baby & Co. — has seen business increase. On the way to or from the exhibit, people have “discovered the store and have since come back,” employee Rita Sheckler said.

Pablo and David

Which brings the story back to Narazaki, 53, manager of Caffe Ladro across the street from SAM.

Business dropped 40 percent after WaMu moved out in 2008, he said. Things improved slightly after Russell Investments and Nordstrom offices moved into the neighborhood. And Picasso gave the cafe an additional boost.

Still, the personal connection he made to Picasso’s work means the most to Narazaki, who left his office job in the early 1990s, went “seeking my bliss” and ended up managing a coffee shop.

A SAM member since he saw a Dale Chihuly exhibit there in the 1990s, Narazaki said he never had fallen as hard for an exhibition as this one — blown away by Picasso’s creative process and his mastery of various forms, from realistic portraits to cubist paintings to sculptures and mixed media.

“Give him materials, and he makes art out of it,” Narazaki marveled.

What intrigued him most was this: how Picasso came to see and do things so nonconventionally.

Narazaki immersed himself in Picasso, buying CDs of music that the artist was said to enjoy, listening to the tracks on his iPhone as he went through the exhibition. Narazaki closely examined brush strokes, noticing something new almost every time. He jotted his thoughts and made sketches in small notebooks.

And he frequently texted a friend on the East Coast with his reactions as he viewed the works.

“Pablo’s sharing his life, and everything he wants to tell me is up on the walls,” he said.

The show’s close doesn’t mean the end of Narazaki’s relationship with Picasso. It doesn’t even mean the end of his viewing of this particular exhibition.

That friend on the East Coast? Narazaki may see Picasso’s works with her at the show’s next stop: the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com