The Closing of Suyama Space
Suyama Space is a one-room installation exhibition venue and residency located in Seattle. It is closing on December 16 after nearly twenty years of continuous programming. Its current (and last) exhibition, Generativity with artist Fernanda D’Agostino, fittingly addresses memory and movement. Suyama Space represents a unique model for showing art. Like a species going extinct in a biological ecosystem, when Suyama Space closes its doors we will lose one way of being an art space in the Pacific Northwest.
Scientists tell us that the rapidly-increasing reach of ecological interdependencies causes seemingly insular ecosystems to have greater effects on a global scale. The catchy buzzword “arts ecosystem” pops up in grants and panel discussions all too often, but borrowing from ecological concepts may actually help us understand why the closing of one small art space in Seattle reaches far beyond itself and its region. We know that everything from vegetable varieties to languages and visual culture is under the strain of massive homogenizing forces in a consumption-focused globalized western capitalist society.1 As arts professionals, our goal shouldn’t necessarily be to make more exhibitions, bigger exhibitions, or even better exhibitions—but rather to allow for the greatest variety of ways to make, show, view, and participate in art. As biodiversity increases resilience in ecosystems, so can art model diversity increase the resilience of arts ecosystems.
Spaces focused on installation – one genus of the art center family in our ecological analogy, are already at a disadvantage in the current climate. Their prevalence lags behind the level of interest from artists and viewers for reasons tied to feasibility and market forces: the art expires when the exhibition does, and it’s not for sale. In addition to these rebellious characteristics, installations can be very expensive to produce and so are difficult for artists to mount on their own. Installations often require institutional support to be feasible, but institutions are hesitant to take risks on unknown artists. Given these interrelated factors, it can be very difficult for artists to even begin making large-scale installation work. Although site-specific installations can generate and move forward new ways of visual and spatial thinking, their effects on the artists and art conversations can be diffuse and hard to track.
Those who know Suyama Space acknowledge its singularity, not just in the Pacific Northwest, but as an art space in general. Other spaces that focus on presenting installation work are more widely known, such as Turbine Hall, the Mattress Factory, and Mass MOCA. Even in relation to these well-documented spaces, Suyama Space presents a unique combination of factors – like characteristics of a species – that would be difficult to replicate: its physical architecture and history, the relationship between the curator and each artist, its curatorial strategy and mission, and its limitations.
Architecture and History
Physically, Suyama Space has the cleanliness of a standard white cube but carries more humanity through subtle exposure of its history. The site is buoyed by the architecture. High windows above exposed beams produce slivers of light that move down the wall and across the floor during the day. The floor itself is grounded by wide wooden planks marked and weathered from holding hay when the venue was above a livery stable in the 1800s. The room that Suyama Space occupies was originally on the second floor, but Denny Hill of Belltown was regraded in the early 1900s resulting in a rising street level, making the second floor the first. Starting in 1929 it hosted an auto repair shop; one of the wooden ceiling trusses still shows the faded lettering “STORE CARS AT OWNERS RISK”. The auto repair shop operated until 1995. Currently the building holds the offices of architect George Suyama behind the exhibition venue and retail design stores in front, providing street access. Soon it will be something else entirely.
Portland-based artist Avantika Bawa’s powerful installation At Owners Risk (2012) took on the literal history of the building and the neighborhood, paying tribute to its auto body shop history in formal minimalist language with massive ultramarine blue hydraulic mechanic lifts to frame the space, oil catchment trays scaled up in size that showed shadowy reflections in smooth black liquid, and a single graphite line along one wall marking the angle of the historic regrade. Blueprint drawings of the sculptural work nodded to the current architectural activity in the next room.
One elegant exhibition connected the heavy history of the architecture with very contemporary concerns. For Site Machines (2014), Seattle-based artist Tivon Rice installed cameras in the gallery and also in private spaces of the building – the basement and the architectural model storage room. He connected the cameras to monitors in the gallery as a way of giving access through surveillance and bridging the gap between public and private space. Two cameras side-by-side in the gallery moved on tracks toward and away from each other, their corresponding displays never quite coalescing into the same image. The perspectives shifted continuously as fluorescent tubes suspended from the ceiling lit sequentially. Rice explored concepts of chronology, point of view, production and display, privacy and power that were already present within the building. He highlighted hidden spaces always lurking around the public areas we occupy, and how new media connects them to us in new ways.
The industrial materials of Bawa’s installation and new media of Rice’s both flourished in the gallery. Suyama Space is that rare venue that has an assertive character, and yet can host a wide range of art without overpowering it.
Perhaps, the most unique quality of the project is curator Beth Sellars. George Suyama freely admits “she did it all.” Tireless is a word that surfaces around Sellars: though of small stature, and now in her 70s, she is vibrant, perceptive, and not afraid to speak her mind. When she decides to defend something she doesn’t waver. She is with each artist every step of the way from their initial research to installation, sometimes hanging from ropes and climbing to the tops of ladders, especially when her artists are afraid of heights. For Avantika Bawa’s exhibition, Sellars was tinkering on the 20-ft ladder at 11pm to install her show, then went home and ate two scoops of peanut butter for dinner, and was ready to go again first thing the next morning. “I’m a real hands-on curator.” says Sellars. “I would hate it if I couldn’t do that.”
Having a large hand in installation lets Sellars make micro-curatorial decisions up to the opening. Though these types of last-minute tweaks and responses can make a big difference in the final read of an exhibition, larger institutions usually pass them off to gallery managers and preparators. By having one curator present from the initial artist selection to the last small placement decision, the exhibitions show a deliberateness and mutual trust. Each iteration is a record of intimate collaboration between artist, curator, and the space itself. That intimacy is immediately apparent.
Sellars’ search for a Seattle venue to show the work of an artist Lynne Yamamoto, whom she had already worked with in another capacity, catalyzed the first exhibition at Suyama Space. The project continued from the success of that single exhibition, and the relationship between curator and artist remained the driving force throughout.
Curatorial Strategy / Mission
Suyama Space’s intimacy is an alternative to a museum, where the infrastructure is larger, and it is also an alternative to commercial galleries, where sales can dictate content. Sellars selects artists whose overall practice and trajectory fits with the space, its mission, and her vision, and invites them to research the site while staying in a little cabin on George Suyama’s property. The artist makes a proposal, and, once it is approved, the artist is free to succeed or fail within their own parameters. Sellars provides a sounding board for crafting good proposals, advises on space logistics, does the actual installing with the artists (sometimes with help from the architects in the next room). She also raises enough funds on her own to give artists stipends, production budgets, travel, freight, receptions and catalogs for each show, writes press releases, leads catalog production, gives tours of the exhibitions and organizes events and performances. Halfway through the project Suyama Space became a non-profit to help the fundraising process, but with a board of three mostly absent members, structurally it is just a formality.
George Suyama represents the concerns of the firm and the building and contributes input to the mission and ethos. After the fifth exhibition at the end of 1999, a lackluster painting show, Beth Sellars and George Suyama decided that the art shown at Suyama space must be a direct response to the site itself. Since then their model and mission have remained very consistent. Every decision goes through a maximum of only three people: Sellars, the artist, and George Suyama. This model strips the exhibition process of its bureaucracy and provides it fluidity. It also means that the programming takes on Sellars’ curatorial voice. Her own aesthetic inclinations seep through in neutral colors and raw materiality. In the 54 exhibitions produced by the Suyama Space since 1998, most approach the context of the space tangentially. Many have used movement and rhythms to activate installations, they have paid close attention to the floor, the high ceilings or the particular space between those. Many have contained architectural references and sound components. They have come from traditions in minimalism, land art, sound art, intermedia, abstraction and conceptual art. They avoid relational aesthetics, internet art, political art and overt references to pop culture; they stick to a quiet aesthetic. Still, the installations can be very powerful and all deal with contemporary concerns in their own way. Each one is a very honest, sometimes vulnerable attempt to push the edges of the space and the edges of an art practice.
For Anna Hepler’s exhibition Bloom (2011), she suspended a massive long-fingered red flower-shape in the middle of the space. When partially deflated, the tips of the plastic fingers would rest on the floor. As an air pump filled the sculpture with air the fingers would slowly stand erect, eventually lifting away from the floor entirely. The hum of the air pump accompanied inflation, and when the pump turned off air seeped out of tiny holes and cracks in the construction, emitting a hushed rain-like sound. Before it could fully deinflate, the air pump would turn on again. The entire process took around 20 minutes. A bright red woodcut of the same form hung on one side of the space. Hepler’s original motivation related to the relationship between the idealized geometric 2D form and its messy, crinkling, 3D counterpart. However, the power in the installation was the sculpture’s ability to transform the gallery into a breathing, living thing. In giving the installation breath, Hepler also brought an awareness of time marked by a particular rhythm, both visual and aural. It mimicked the repetition of installing and deinstalling exhibitions, the constant cycle of effort in the temporal context of the project. It exposed value and humor in the futility of an objective that will never sustain a completed state.
Just like art can develop rhythms to activate the dimension of time, so do curatorial projects architect the viewing experience through specified intervals. Suyama Space has a slower pace than many art galleries of similar scale, and its viewers slow down too.2 In today’s rise of increasingly massive museums, miles of art fair booths and the spread of the biennial-structure, viewers may glance at an artwork for a few seconds or less, and then move on. Short attention spans created by the internet are often seen as the culprit, but the exhibition structures themselves feed that inclination and the increasing speed of art consumption. Art fairs and biennials are important in their own way, but they have a deer-like role in the arts ecosystem; they may be cute but they have a serious overpopulation problem, especially in urban areas. Even in smaller art spaces installations often show greater thought toward the five perfectly composed images that will circulate in art blogs on the internet than the physical experience of a viewer. One wonderful aspect of Suyama Space is the slower pace, and the acknowledgment of the physical experience over its subsequent life through documentation. When so many one-room art spaces and commercial galleries stick to a more prolific one-month-per-exhibition timeline, our process of receiving, absorbing, and processing work can suffer. Having art spaces with different time scales allows for different making, viewing, and analyzing processes.
Not every exhibition found success. Every exhibition structure has limitations, and failures can sometimes reveal them.
Interestingly, some of the riskiest installations ended up being the most successful. For Cascade (2014), Ian McMahon installed two floor-to-ceiling theatre curtains made entirely of plaster, holding themselves up and dividing the space into thirds, affecting the travel of light and sound in the space in new ways that couldn’t have been anticipated. Deinstallation, normally the unglamorous and private part of exhibitions, became a documented performance as McMahon released a metal bar to swing and hit the curtain, which collapsed elegantly upon itself. That documentation, available on the Suyama Space website, reveals the hushed build-up to the action and the reactions of wonder and astonishment from the audience. McMahon elegantly layered the theatricality of theater curtain form and the drama and risk of the closing performance to draw parallels between exhibition space and stage.
Conversely, one of the least risky installations ended up, in Sellars’ mind, also being the least successful. It had the largest production budget of any exhibition held in the space. Two architects submitted a beautiful, watertight proposal that was the epitome of the mission to respond to the space. A soft mylar material would fill the gallery, suspended from the ceiling in a loose layering four feet off the floor. It was supposed to fluctuate with every door or window opening and person walking through, but it was too heavy. All the design, engineering, measurements were all perfectly modeled, but it just sat there. “It’s not because they didn’t try.” says Sellars. “They worked really hard on it.”
One exhibition found the edge of what the space could accommodate, and passed it. An exhibition proposed by Los Angeles-based sculptor Peter Shelton was never realized. He came to Seattle, researched the space, and responded to it with bold ideas: His original proposal consisted of, on one side of the gallery, an open frame chair made entirely of metal. Perforations all over the surface of the chair would connect to an air compressor in the basement that would supply a constant flow of air. The viewer could sit and be surrounded by an unsettling “fuzzy aura”. On the other side of the gallery a hole three feet in diameter would be cut through the floor, including a floor joist, and steel tubing extending 20 feet down would be filled with water. Occasionally a burst of air would bubble up and break the surface. George Suyama, to Sellars’ surprise, agreed to it and the proposal was accepted.
In continuing to make plans, Shelton discovered that with the tubing a lip would have to be added to the dimensions, so a second floor joist would have to come out. He also wanted to put the tube not just down to the parking garage floor but through it. The city would have to get involved, and with a three-foot-wide hole of water flush with the floor, there would be safety concerns too. It was too much for the architecture of the space and structure of the organization. It’s the type of proposal that may never have been considered in a larger institution with more bureaucracy, but also would have been easier to execute in a space with a much larger and more flexible budget. Shelton felt quite a loss at its dissolution. All that remains is a large file of communications, grant proposals, and a drawing, outlining the physical, conceptual, logistical and financial considerations of a work that will never be.
The benefits of a small infrastructure include the intimacy and flexibility in projects, and strong curatorial unity from the tireless Beth Sellars. The consistent voice and approach over the entire arc of the exhibition remains impressive. The drawback is that even Sellars can only take on so much.
Letting it end
Another time scale of Suyama Space is this: 18 years, 7 months, and 8 days from the beginning of its first exhibition to the end of its last. Every project must have an ending, but there is another layer to this story: the complex web of forces surrounding gentrification and art. The building is in the process of being sold to a Chinese developer, along with the rest of the buildings in the block, but the decision to close Suyama Space was reached long before the opportunity to sell even arose. From George Suyama’s perspective, the sensibility of the Belltown neighborhood has already undergone a major shift from when the building was purchased. Twenty years ago Belltown was quieter, but the Seattle art scene in general had a bigger and more visible audience and patronage. Now the whole attitude of Seattle, and especially Belltown, is more technology focused, as technology companies have moved in and become the dominant culture. It’s an all-too familiar story, but the decreasing economic viability of a donated venue like Suyama Space parallels a loss of the targeted audience as they are displaced to the edges of the city, or as wealthier collectors shift focus to art fairs in other cities. Momentum is shared between all types of art and culture spaces in a city. A loss of momentum in the commercial sector influences the enthusiasm and attendance for independent or non-profit spaces like Suyama Space. As George Suyama puts it, “The commitment of the city helps to propel you along.” Part of listening to needs includes an awareness of neighborhood and viewership. In other words, Suyama Space’s current habitat has slowly become inhospitable, and its ending will in turn change that habitat further for the commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, and museums that remain.
Sellars, understandably, is attached to the space itself and grappling with dissolution of not only the project but the physical building. “To me that’s the saddest thing. Closing the gallery was sad, but thinking the building would still exist in some form was palatable. To knock it down” – she pauses – “I might get in front of the bulldozer.”
What Can We Learn From Suyama Space?
Location, funding model, physical (or non-physical) space, size, curatorial vision/approach, length of exhibition, length of installation, length of project, intended and actual audience are aspects that affect every model of sharing and viewing art. There are many different combinations of these factors that increase arts model diversity. So what gap does the Suyama Space leave, and what can it tell us about building one kind of successful exhibition model?
- Find the mission/niche and stick with it as long as you can.
- Listen to the needs of your artists, venue(s), viewers, and ecosystem.
- Think about your time scales, and the rhythms you are creating.
- Support artists, and match their effort. Fuel each other’s enthusiasm.
- Give artists room to do something they haven’t before, or would be unable to do in a different context.
- Keep staff as small as reasonably possible: figure out the core relationship between space(s)/artist(s)/curator(s)/audience and take away the fluff.
- When it’s time, let it end.
When I asked Sellars what she thought about the current state of contemporary art making and exhibiting she gave words to something I’d been feeling: “The institutional world is in a dead end of sorts. I’m so proud of the younger generations of people in the arts to say ‘by damn, we’re going to have a gallery in our living room, we’re going to open something in a garage, we’re going to do a two nighter here or there.’ It is confusing and hard to track but I really admire that. I have such confidence that regardless of what the economic situation is, the artists (although they won’t ever be paid much) will continue to bring out from themselves things that are worthwhile, and make new.”
So, let’s mourn and then make new, and also continue old models that are working. In the face of so many arts spaces closing around the country, it’s easy to be discouraged, and to get caught up in criticizing models that aren’t working for everybody. Every noxious weed is somebody’s treasured native plant, and that is true for art spaces too – every model exists for a reason, it may just be in the wrong place or its type may be too dominant. Art is under many forces that threaten to censor, commodify, discourage, weaken, and invalidate it. But art and artists are ultimately durable and a project’s effects can continue long after it is over. Contributing to arts model diversity and participating in its deliberate evolution could be the best strategy to protect artists living within the ecosystem.
- Michael Pollan exposes this issue within our food systems in Omnivore’s Dilemma and anthropologist Wade Davis discusses the cultural implications in his spectacular book, Wayfinders. In relation to art, Christopher Lee Kennedy makes a case for iLAND as one unique and viable model outside the homogenized norm in a recent Temporary Art Review essay, but even iLAND cannot be a singular solution. ↩
- The rhythm and time scales dictated by the project itself are as follows: an initial residency of up to a month, up to two years between approval of an artist proposal and the exhibition, one-month installation windows, and three-month exhibitions. ↩