When Greg Lundgren was growing up in Bellevue — back in the early ’80s, before the town became so developed and glassy — he and the other kids would play in the woods, looking for recently bulldozed trees. When they found one they liked, they’d climb in the crater where the roots used to be and build a fort.
That impulse, for finding empty spaces and turning nothings into somethings, stuck with him.
Lundgren has grown up to be an artist, curator and entrepreneur who has spent the past few decades hunting around Seattle for negative zones (derelict properties, soon-to-be-demolished buildings) and fortifying them into fleeting new homes for art.
If you look around town, you can see where Lundgren set up temporary art venues for exhibitions and performances before something else came along: a vacant restaurant space at Second and Lenora (now a Starbucks), a once-unused property at Westlake and Denny (now a Whole Foods), the cavernous upper floor of King Street Station (once the spot for Out of Sight, Lundgren’s vibrant, DIY response to Seattle Art Fair, now home base for Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture).
Lundgren got there early, tearing out old walls, building new ones, finding art to fill them, and getting people in the door.
Now he’s busy sledgehammering out the interior walls of his latest find: a vintage, idling, 8,000-square-foot former medical building at 901 Broadway, on the northeast edge of the Swedish medical campus on First Hill, which is scheduled to be torn down — someday.
In the meantime, he’s calling it the Museum of Museums (MoM) which, once the drywall dust has settled and the electricity gets turned back on, will house two gallery spaces, rotating exhibitions from private collectors whose art is currently hidden behind closed doors or in storage units, a miniature museum dreamed up by sculptor Jennifer McNeely, a gift shop, a biweekly artists bazaar and other stuff.
MoM plans to open in October, but have an open house during Seattle Art Fair (Aug. 1-4), with two exterior sculptures (something neon by Dylan Neuwirth and something 3-D printed by Gracelee Lawrence) and the renovation mostly completed. The light switches and bathrooms, at least, will be operational.
Like many Lundgren projects, MoM will occupy a roughly defined middle ground with a newish model. It’s not a sales-driven gallery (though some of the work will be for sale) and it’s not a traditional nonprofit museum (though it will show work from private collections). MoM is a for-profit, $10-ticket, membership-based place to hang out and look at art.
“It’s a museum, just less institutional and more playful,” Lundgren said, stepping past half-smashed walls, over demolition detritus, and down some stairs. “The idea is that it feels like you’re in a home. We want to play to that instead of the cavernous, basketball-court-sized gallery.”
For Swedish, Lundgren’s proposal was a solution. The 1946 building had been medical offices and a retail shop specializing in prostheses (and undergarments) for women who’d had mastectomies. Over the years, it had become a storage space and then went vacant and became a magnet for short-term squatters.
“We had people breaking in, a lot of police activity, lots of issues with people on the sidewalks and around the building, fires inside the building, that kind of thing,” Mike Denney, the chief real estate officer for Swedish, said. “We intend to develop that building, or partner with someone to develop it, but Greg’s plan was such a perfect solution — we’ve been clear we want him to be the last occupant.”
MoM’s current lease, Denney said, is for two years with an agreement to extend until the new, undetermined development project is ready to break ground. Swedish and Lundgren wouldn’t disclose other terms of the lease, except to say it was far below market value and that Swedish had devoted resources to initial cleanup — mostly asbestos remediation and hauling out trash, including volumes of hypodermic needles.
Lundgren said he’ll announce MoM’s 2020 programming in July, but so far has confirmed two co-curators (a witch-themed exhibition with Bri Luna of The Hoodwitch, and something to be announced by painter/curator Anthony White) as well as an exhibition from the private collection of artist and curator Shaun Kardinal, which was profiled by The New York Times earlier this year.
But for Lundgren, MoM is also one point in a larger constellation — his longtime project to ignite a cultural renaissance in Seattle. “I’m like a broken record,” he said, “but I’ll keep saying the same thing I’ve said for years: Any time you have a concentration of talent, wealth, innovation and quality of life, you’ve got all the ingredients for a renaissance, of a revolution, of a movement. But somehow, we just haven’t been mixing them right.”
Several of his ideas, loosely under the umbrella name Vital 5 Productions, have come to fruition: Out of Sight, the Hideout (a First Hill art gallery masquerading as a bar, or vice versa), Vito’s (another First Hill joint, resurrected with a local, live music component), Lundgren Monuments (his cast-glass headstone company), pranks at Seattle Art Museum (including a satirical, downloadable audio tour he recorded with some artist friends).
Others haven’t. He’s also tried to open art spaces inside the Icon Grill beneath the monorail, an old eye clinic on Boylston (which he wanted to call “The Eye Care Center for Visual Therapy”), and a doomed Honda dealership on Boren. “I am always looking for a building with an expiration date,” Lundgren said. “The city is full of derelict properties, but you have to ask — you have to raise your hand.” When The Lusty Lady peep show closed in downtown Seattle, he wanted to move into the building (conveniently located across the street from Seattle Art Museum) to create Walden 3, a long-term, quasi-utopian, contemporary-art center. He wrote business plans and letters, and met with potential funders, but couldn’t raise enough interest in the big-budget project.
“I’ve got a filing cabinet full of ideas that haven’t worked out yet,” Lundgren said. “But that’s fine.”
Mostly, he wants to see a more culturally vibrant city — and feels serially disappointed by our unrealized collective potential.
“Seattle is growing, but there are fewer art galleries,” Lundgren said. “Where is our contemporary arts center? What if Consolidated Works [the contemporary arts center that opened in 1999 and closed in 2006] were still open and in its 20th year? Can you imagine? How many arts critics are left? I had an exhibit called ‘*Critics’ 20 years ago, with about 12 Seattle critics: Emily Hall, Sheila Farr, Matthew Kangas, Regina Hackett. There were so many. The sign of a healthy city is when its creative community is growing, not shrinking. And I’m selfish — I want to live here, and I want this creative community to grow.”
But he hasn’t given up hope. “Either you do it or you don’t,” he said. “Some people are only down on Seattle: ‘Tech bros suck, nobody supports the arts, I’m moving’ — or better yet, ‘I’m just going to complain about it.’ I’m not throwing in the towel on Seattle. The question is: Are you going to sit around and wait for somebody else to write the check, or are you going to build the version you can?”
For him, the answer is obvious: MoM is another one of those versions, a proof-of-concept project to show there’s room to grow, even without major bankrollers — people will just have to pay for it $10 at a time.
“The fact is we live in a town with nearly a dozen billionaires and thousands of millionaires,” Lundgren said. “But I’m not holding my breath for any of them. Collectively, we are a billionaire.”