After more than a year of setbacks and delays, which had more to do with zoning and permits than COVID-19, the Museum of Museums (MoM) on First Hill is finally about to open. (Maybe. Knock on wood.)
As a museum, MoM — founded by artist and entrepreneur Greg Lundgren — wants to feel less like an institution than a cultural clubhouse, an arts center with two main galleries; several submuseums (kids’ artwork, miniature artwork, art from private collections); a delightfully bizarre gift shop with knit ham-and-cheese sandwiches and 3D-printed banana-foot hybrids; and a flurry of activity, from live-nude drawing sessions to cartooning classes taught by 10-year-old filmmaker Orion Razat. (Unlike many museums, MoM is not a nonprofit; general admission is $10.)
But there’s a problem with the third floor. It can open, but with a terminal diagnosis — only five years to live as an art space, and those years will cost MoM and Lundgren an extra $13,000-$25,000 in temporary-use permits.
To understand why, you need to know a little about the building’s history.
MoM’s whitewashed, narrow-bricked, roughly T-shaped structure at 900 Boylston Ave. has lived a few lives in its 74 years, mostly to do with the human body.
The three-story building, on the northeast corner of the Swedish Medical Center campus on First Hill, has housed physicians’ offices, medical-records storage, a nonprofit that distributed diapers and warm baby clothes, the Greater Seattle Prosthetics Center and a shop selling special lingerie for people with prostheses. Abandoned around six years ago, 900 Boylston served as a squat where, based on the residual evidence, people sought shelter, built fires and chopped up the electrical system for scrap metal.
In May 2019, the building swiveled away from bodies toward something more cerebral: Lundgren had persuaded Swedish Health Services, which owns 900 Boylston, to let him occupy and build out the property for an art museum. Lundgren has a history of finding and reappropriating unused or underutilized spaces for art projects: transforming a First Hill rectangle with high business turnover into the Hideout, a grottolike gallery/bar, or cleaning out a then-empty King Street Station for his Out of Sight art fairs.
“To Swedish, this building was a liability — a squat and a crack house with broken windows, overflowing toilets and three tons of garbage that had to be removed by a hazmat team,” Lundgren said. “We’re turning it into a contemporary art center.”
But 900 Boylston’s medical history is a problem for MoM.
The short version: Because of city zoning rules, its third floor is only allowed two functions — multifamily housing or medical stuff (doctor’s offices, record keeping, etc.). To show art up there, MoM needs to buy a series of temporary-use permits (estimates from the city have shown a range of price tags from $14,000 to $25,000) for a maximum of five years. After that, the permits are nonrenewable. No more third-floor art.
Lundgren objects — strenuously. “It’s preposterous to say that zoning doesn’t allow for artwork,” he said. “The city should be encouraging artists to repurpose abandoned and problematic commercial spaces. In a town where high rents and redevelopment regularly erase artist space, when unicorn opportunities like MoM present themselves, they should not discourage development and require expensive specialists to argue around city code.” (So far, Lundgren has hired a consultant, a team of architects and a land-use attorney to navigate MoM’s city process.)
Bryan Stevens, a spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections (SDCI), said it isn’t that simple: 900 Boylston sits in a high-rise zone, which typically allows for multifamily housing with street-level commercial use. Several decades ago, Swedish negotiated a special medical-use exemption. Officially, the building can stick to the normal zoning rules (ground-floor commercial, housing above) or be a medical building, but nothing else — not even an art museum.
Lundgren said he made several arguments to SDCI about how MoM’s third floor could tie art and medicine together. Doctors could use the floor for consultations with patients. Lundgren could use it for his funerary business (he owns Lundgren Monuments, which makes urns, caskets and headstones). MoM could make the third floor accessible only to people who produce a written doctor’s note advising they visit its exhibitions for art therapy.
SDCI wasn’t buying it.
Moreover, SDCI already ruled in Lundgren’s favor on two fronts: It didn’t require him to make “significant alterations” to occupy the building (which would have cost millions of dollars in retrofitting) and, because 900 Boylston is on a slope, it allowed for commercial use on the first and second floor, since both could be interpreted as being on the “street level.”
“This multifamily zone focuses on providing housing, with an allowance for street-level businesses,” Stevens said. “We spent a lot of staff time working with Mr. Lundgren to help make his proposal work for this building. There were definitely some hurdles that could have been eliminated if the gallery were proposed in a different location that allowed commercial uses.”
What Stevens didn’t say: Lundgren probably isn’t the only developer in town itchy to migrate commercial real estate above street level in housing zones. If MoM can’t prove its third-floor gallery has medical value, but is still allowed to use it for “commercial” purposes, that could set a precedent for property owners who’d rather be renting to cellphone stores or nail salons than families.
Regardless, Lundgren is both eager to open MoM and tired of this process.
“I would never do this project again and I would never encourage anyone else to do this kind of project,” he said. “And it’s a damn shame because it was a derelict squat.”
MoM’s inaugural, post-squat exhibitions sound promising: on the main floor, “Goodwitch/Badwitch,” co-curated by Lundgren and artist/witch Bri Luna, also known as The Hoodwitch. The show involves work by practicing witches (mostly from the Northwest, with a few from Chicago, Los Angeles and Mexico City) or artists whose work with nature, technology and alchemy makes them, in Luna and Lundgren’s eyes, witchlike.
“There’s a certain expectation of ‘oooh spooky witches’ in the culture and I think this exhibit will try to crack that open,” said Kevin Whiteneir, an artist/witch from Chicago. “There’s a lot more happening in witchcraft these days than black and long nails and heavy eyeliner.”
The much-discussed third floor will host “Energy Drink,” a disorienting exercise in immersive color and surreal interior architecture by painter Brian Sanchez and installation artist Neon Saltwater, also known as Abby Dougherty.
Lundgren had planned — and is still hoping — to debut MoM before the Nov. 3 election, but is still waiting for final inspections from the city before he can officially open.
“The building is ready, the shows are up and we’ve done everything the city asked,” he said. “But there’s a whole train of things I’m waiting on. We can’t get the fire marshal out until the electrical inspectors come out. I had to file a separate permit for the fire alarm system. That was three months ago, and they still haven’t approved it.”