Belltown gallery Suyama Space started as a happy accident when a curator met an architect with a giant, 19th-century room he didn’t know what to do with. After 19 years, it’s closing.
In yet another signal flare from Seattle’s cultural metamorphosis,Suyama Space — one of the city’s more daring and difficult-to-explain public galleries — is in its last weeks.
Architect George Suyama, who recently sold the Belltown building housing the gallery, announced the closure about a year ago. But as the clock runs out, he said, “people seem to be talking about it more — it’s on their minds.”
They’re talking, in part, because Suyama Space will join a growing list of Seattle-area galleries that have gone dark in recent years.
by Fernanda D’Agostino, the final installation at Suyama Space, 2324 Second Ave., Seattle, through Dec. 16; free (206-256-0809 or suyamaspace.org).
After 19 years, Dec. 16 will be your last chance to approach the metal-framed glass door at 2324 Second Ave., push a buzzer, hear the lock click open, then walk into a gorgeously raw, wood-floored cavern — built in the 19th century, supposedly as a stable for Seattle horses — filled with a massive, ambitious art installation.
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The last one is “Generativity” by Fernanda D’Agostino — an ironically fitting title for a finale.
Suyama bought the property in 1995 for $545,000 and sold it earlier this year to F & L Real Estate LLC (which formed a corporation in Washington state just three months prior) for $5 million.
Suyama is moving his architecture firm to South Park. But the gallery his clients and employees walked through every working day, where the art was huge and nothing was for sale, is about to vanish.
“We decided to close the gallery before we sold the building,” Suyama said. “Belltown is changing, the feeling around us is changing … you long for that edge, that excitement.”
The crusty, gritty Belltown that first drew Suyama to the neighborhood is vanishing. Now, Suyama Space curator Beth Sellars said, “it’s becoming nothing but condominiums.”
The new owners of 2324 Second Ave. did not return requests for comment, but Sellars said she suspects the building, like others in the neighborhood, is destined for demolition.
The shuttering of Suyama Space is the latest in a wave of Seattle galleries closing; moving to more affordable, peripheral neighborhoods; or going online — the cheapest neighborhood of all. Longtime Seattle gallery owners like Greg Kucera can tick off the names: Howard House, Lawrimore Project, Catherine Person, Platform, Punch, Wright Exhibition Space, the New Foundation, Roq La Rue.
John Braseth of Woodside/Braseth Gallery, who has been watching the Seattle art scene since the ’70s, said you can “track the demise of brick-and-mortar galleries in price per square foot … You’re going to keep seeing big galleries shrink and small galleries not emerge. Who’s going to come after us?”
When galleries are robust and working well, Kucera said, they can serve as a low-stakes gateway for potential art lovers who might wander in off the sidewalk but won’t necessarily buy tickets to a museum. But the galleries are folding for a variety of reasons. Their founders are tired, the recent focus on glitzy art fairs and online sales sucks oxygen away from traditional commercial galleries — and Seattle’s still-ballooning real estate market is pushing leaseholders out and showing building owners offers that are too good to refuse.
“I thought the market would slow down before now,” said David Petersen, who represented Suyama in the Belltown sale. “But it hasn’t.” Suyama’s space, he added, “is so close to Amazon, you don’t have to think too hard to realize that’s a good location.”
The Seattle art scene has already been mourning Suyama Space’s impending departure.
Dawna Holloway, who runs the Studio E gallery in Georgetown, said the loss of Suyama Space “is the biggest hit” to Seattle’s gallery scene yet. Gail Gibson of G. Gibson Gallery agreed: “They will be greatly missed. It is a smarter venue for installation works and has been a focal point for our city.”
Kucera called Suyama Space “more of a gift to the public than any other galleries can claim.” (Kucera has also served on its nonprofit board.)
The gallery has been free to the public for almost two decades and all its donations and grant money went to pay for materials and artists’ stipends — but, perhaps most important, the noncommercial gallery never struggled with pressure to make money from sales. That allowed Suyama and Sellars to take risks on wild experiments and up-and-coming artists. “I’ve been told by artists that so-and-so gallery owner said they had to know they’d sell $70,000 worth of work to even consider having an exhibit,” Holloway said.
Suyama Space was not one of them. “It became a laboratory,” Sellars said. “A place where artists were blown away because they can come and try what they’ve always wanted to do without the usual funding or time.”
In a sense, Suyama Space is an accidental gallery. In the late ’90s, Sellars was trying to find a Seattle venue that would show Lynne Yamamoto’s quasi-autobiographical installation “Grasp,” about her grandmother, who left Japan for Hawaii as a “picture bride” in 1914. It was harder than she expected. Sellars said she was whining to a friend about the search one night “and he said he knew someone who just bought a building with a room he can’t mess with because it was so remarkable.”
Sellars met Suyama, who offered to rent her the space. By a stroke of luck, Sellars soon found herself in New York at the same time as Suyama — while Yamamoto was having an exhibition. “I dragged him out to see the show,” Sellars said, “and he said: ‘Forget the rent, you can have the space. This is amazing work.’ ”
Suyama Space was born.
Since 2000, all of the gallery’s works have been large installations by single artists or art teams like Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio. The artists were all required to spend time in the old horse stable and come up with an idea specifically for that room.
Several of Suyama Space’s artists, like John Grade (who suspended an enormous brown moonscape-bog made of newspaper pulp from the ceiling) and Lead Pencil Studio (which hung more than 100 miles of industrial filaments that played with the light in the space), went on to spectacular careers making large-scale work.
Artists coming from out of town, Sellars said, could “stay at George’s cabin by the Fauntleroy ferry — he’d entertain them.” And in the early days, Suyama would help artists while they worked, holding ladders and carrying materials.
Sometimes, Sellars said, the architects studied the artists at work, marveling at how they engineered their projects. In 2014, while New York artist Ian McMahon was installing his “Cascade” — two enormous, floor-to-ceiling curtains made of plaster that had to be painstakingly sprayed between carefully rippled rubber sheets — Sellars found a clutch of architects standing in the gallery, “getting into serious conversations about how he was doing this.”
Although “Generativity” — the current installation by Fernanda D’Agostino — is an apt title for a final show in a space that has incubated so much innovative artwork, it was another providential accident.
Suyama, Sellars said, told her two and a half years ago that he was ready for their experiment to end. She asked when. He said immediately. “But we’re booked out for two years,” Sellars remembers telling him, adding that if he wanted to call all the artists and tell them their shows were canceled, he was welcome to. “Of course George,” she said with a chuckle, “wasn’t going to do that.”
Despite the accident, “Generativity” seems full of metaphors about the legacy of Suyama Space — blown-glass vessels with tiny seeds; blown-glass bulbs attached to a wall that make chirping bird and insect sounds, like a forest waking up; large projections of billowing clouds, fiery sparks in the dark, and almost-naked bodies huddling together, as if to protect each other and keep the group warm.
In one corner, a circle of blue water is projected on the floor with a submerged woman who looks like she’s either frolicking or drowning. Next to it stands a metal lifeguard chair, as if someone sitting in it could monitor the swimmer’s well-being.
The chair is empty.