As one of the museums in Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) held its public reopening Friday, bringing a dose of normalcy to a week of wildfire smoke and continued fears around COVID-19.

With the National Nordic Museum and Museum of Flight now open and more reopenings coming — Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture reopens Sept. 18, and Tacoma’s Museum District begins reopening Sept. 25 — Friday at SAM was a glimpse of things to come, as more visitors return to the arts spaces long shuttered by statewide measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

At SAM, patrons were welcomed back starting at 10 a.m., with timed entrances keeping groups spaced apart. At the museum entrance midday Friday, clear signage enforced physical distancing, and a guard checked patrons’ timed-ticketing status before letting them in every 30 minutes. He reported that so far, “Everybody’s been on very good behavior.” He turned away one party who hadn’t made reservations, and encouraged them to come back after booking online.

Inside, visitors filed in slowly and quietly, ascending the escalator in groups rarely larger than two. Many appeared to have come alone, and all wore masks (some of which were particularly striking, including one made by the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s costume shop, according to its owner). SAM’s senior marketing manager Wendy Saffel said employees reported visitors had been “very compliant” with face-covering requirements. About 75 people had been coming in every hour, meaning capacity was staying well below state-sanctioned limits, said Saffel.

The public reopening followed a private one for members that Saffel said had been largely successful. “People were just so gracious and excited and happy to be back,” she said.

The atmosphere was similar to that of a library on a slow day, with the subtle, early-bird cheer that comes from entering your favorite coffee shop to find it relatively deserted, or getting to a popular hiking spot early enough to experience it without crowds. With the small number of visitors, it was easy for patrons to maintain physical distancing and to examine work up-close, making for a sedate but cheerful experience.

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Visitors check out exhibits at the Seattle Art Museum Friday, the first day the museum reopened after pandemic closures. At center is “Mann und Maus,” of polyester resin and paint, by Katharina Fritsch. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Visitors check out exhibits at the Seattle Art Museum Friday, the first day the museum reopened after pandemic closures. At center is “Mann und Maus,” of polyester resin and paint, by Katharina Fritsch. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

In the museum’s collection of contemporary and modern art, two women eagerly tracked down the label (it’s somewhat hidden in a removed corner) for Katharina Fritsch’s “Mann und Maus,” a goofy-creepy black-and-white sculpture of a giant mouse sitting on a man asleep in bed. Though it looks soft, the viewers were quick to note, the materials — polyester resin and paint — are not.

Elsewhere, viewers took in Wendy Red Star‘s lampooning of Native American stereotypes in her “Four Seasons” series. In it, the Apsáalooke/Crow artist appears in traditional clothing against obviously constructed backdrops and inflatable animals in a powerful sendup to the fetishizing framing of photographers like Edward S. Curtis. Elsewhere, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ “Carpe Fin,” a wall-sized visual depiction of a Haida story, drew what passed for a crowd. One woman, who had come to the museum from Bremerton with her family, said she hadn’t been to SAM in years. “It’s nice there’s attempts to get things back to normal,” she said.

And for the most part, things were surprisingly normal. Traffic in the museum flowed easily. Between a pair of spectators chatting casually on a bench and the lack of windows, time passed easily, and aside from the masks and the crowd level, it didn’t seem all that different from visiting a museum pre-COVID. Saffel said that the mandatory crowd control was also changing the way patrons engaged with the work. “People are really enjoying the more intimate art experience,” she said.

But it wasn’t all business as usual. In accordance with Phase 2 requirements that museums alter exhibitions involving touch points, a few touch-screen elements in the museum were turned off. And some gallery spaces, while still visible, were closed to visitors to keep down capacity, said Saffel.

On the fourth floor, fiber artist Elisabeth Knottingham peered into one of them: the Porcelain Room. Lined with rows upon rows of china objects dating back to the 17th century, the gallery is normally a space viewers can explore on foot, but even from the periphery, it was easy to see the rows of turquoise and white ceramic mounted artfully in flowing arrangements against a brown wall.

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“This is my very favorite room,” said Knottingham, who used to run a tea shop, and is well versed in the material at hand. “When you make tea your living you start to learn about china.”

Knottingham said she visits the Porcelain Room every time she comes to the museum. She had arrived by car from Northgate. Though her household had been careful, she said, “This is the first outside-the-boundary thing that we’ve done.”

Did it feel essential to her? “I don’t know that it feels essential,” she said. “But it feels important.”