Public Benefits Cut, Public Spending Maintained

Did you know that the Asian Art Museum building originally had free admission, four days per week?

The Original Deal

The Asian Art Museum was built in 1933 on City land, using private capital, originally as Seattle Art Museum (SAM). It was handed over to the City of Seattle to maintain, under a negotiated agreement (PDF) which became City ordinance #61998. SAM agreed to build a museum and provide free admission for the public, 4 days per week. The City agreed to maintain the building and provide utilities, janitor and custodian services. Either party could terminate the agreement with 3 years notice.

Two Revisions Cut Public Benefits

84 years later, the museum has free admission only one day per month, but the City is still maintaining the building and providing the same benefits to SAM as under the original agreement.

Why is the museum free only one day per month? It is because the agreement was changed over time to reduce the public benefits while keeping public obligations the same. There were two major changes:

1975: Public gets 1 free day per week (ordinance #104662)
1994: Public gets 1 free day per month (ordinance #117277)

SAM is still paying nothing to use the Asian Art Museum building, and the City is paying over $200,000 per year (according to CEO Kimerly Rorschach, quoted in a Stranger article) for SAM’s utilities and custodial services. The City additionally incurs significant costs to maintain the building and also provide SAM with free parking in Volunteer Park.

The museum is currently free on First Thursdays. First Saturdays are listed as “Free to Families” which does not suggest that all members of the public may visit for free. Suggested admission is currently $9.

Under SAM’s “suggested admission” policy, the admission fee is a requested donation. This does not equate to “free of charge”, even though some people may be able to get in for free. The 1994 ordinance #117277 introduces the suggested admission policy, but also specifically states that on the free days no donation will be requested and notice of free admission will be posted.

Why the Current Deal is Unfair

The problem with this deal is that Seattle citizens are providing free use of City property, and cash payments, without receiving proportional public benefits. Although the building was originally donated, City property should not be managed out of an attempt to repay the philanthropy of rich people generations ago, but must be managed in the public interest. Also, as time goes by, the City’s ongoing maintenance cost becomes more important in comparison to the original capital cost of the building.

We feel the present arrangement does not meet modern standards of equity and fairness to economically disadvantaged people. One free day per month is not enough public benefit to justify providing SAM with free use of a City building, plus parking, plus an operations subsidy. A more fair arrangement would be for the public to get four free days per week as was agreed in 1933, or for SAM to make payments to the City to help fund the building maintenance cost.

The cost of maintaining the building will surely increase if the expansion is built. The square footage will increase, and surely the glass Park Lobby will need professional window washing? How much does that cost? We have found no documentation of what the expansion will do to the City’s maintenance cost.

Problems with Private Capital in Seattle Parks

The Asian Art Museum building is an early example of the use of private capital to build Seattle parks facilities. The history shows the risks of doing so. Capital is not passive, it has rich owners who advocate for their capital investment and expect it to yield a return. This puts powerful interests in direct competition with the public interest in Seattle parklands and facilities. Seattle Art Museum has 70 people on its board of trustees, mostly rich and prominent people, and has hired an employee specifically to push for approval of the museum expansion project. The parklands cannot speak for themselves, and ordinary citizens voices are hard to hear above the push from an institution with a $27 million annual budget.

The City administration has been pushing to develop other Seattle parks using private capital. For more information, read our article: Privatization in Seattle’s Other Parks.