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As a free-admission outdoor sculpture park with both permanent and visiting installations, it is a unique institution in the United States. The idea of green space for large, monumental sculpture in Seattle was first discussed between Virginia and Bagley Wright, Mary and Jon Shirley (former president of Microsoft and Chairman of the Seattle Art Museum Board of Directors at the time), and then Seattle Art Museum director (and wife of William Gates Sr.) Mimi Gardner Gates. The idea grew further during a discussion in 1996 between Robert Measures, Martha Wyckoff, and Mimi Gardner Gates while stranded on a fly fishing trip in Mongolia due to a helicopter crash. Wyckoff, being a trustee of the Trust for Public Land, soon after began an effort to identify possible locations for the park.
A $30 million gift from Mary and Jon Shirley established them as foundational donors. As part of constructing the sculpture park, $5.7 million were spent transforming 1,000 feet (300 m) of the seawall and underwater shoreline inside Myrtle Edwards park. A three level underwater slope was built with 50,000 tonnes of riprap. The first level of the slope is large rocks to break up waves. The second is a flat "bench" level to recreate an intertidal zone. The lower level is covered with smaller rocks designed to attract sealife and large kelp. It is hoped that this recreated strand will help revitalise juvenile salmon from the Duwamish River and serve as a test for future efforts.
Maintenance of the sculptures has been an ongoing challenge. Bordering the Puget Sound, a large body of salt water, the park environment has been corrosive to pieces like Bunyon's Chess, made primarily of exposed wood and metal. Tall painted pieces such as Eagle need to be watched for damage from birds and their waste. Maintenance of these large structures is expensive, requiring scaffolding or boom lifts. The paint on Eagle is also easily damaged by the mechanical clipping of grass near the base of its installation, requiring the gardeners to use scissors instead of a lawn mower near the sculpture. Conservation work on Bunyon's Chess was completed by the museum in 2018.
The Seattle Art Museum regularly presents temporary, site-specific works at the Olympic Sculpture Park, including Victoria Haven's Blue Sun (April 2, 2016 to March 5, 2017); Spencer Finch's The Western Mystery (April 1, 2017 to March 17, 2019); and the newest installation Octopus Wrap (May 11, 2019 to March 8, 2020), by Brazilian artist Regina Silveira.
Prior to and during the park's opening in 2007, the project received positive reviews from many regional and national press sources, and the Olympic Sculpture Park has now become an icon for Seattle. Frommer's guide calls it "the best thing to happen to Seattle in years."
Each year the Olympic Sculpture Park (free to the public) welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors, according to the Seattle Art Museum's annual report. In 2018, Artsy named the park one of the "World's Greatest Sculpture Parks."
The site in 1934. The oil storage facility can be seen at center right; the streetcar storage and maintenance building can be seen to the left of that.
Before the construction of the Olympic Sculpture Park began, there was substantial criticism in the community that the new park would result in the complete shutdown of the Waterfront Streetcar, a fixture of the Seattle waterfront since 1982, because of the park's needed demolition of the streetcar's maintenance and storage facility. The storage and maintenance building was located on a portion of the park's proposed site, and the new park was not designed to either incorporate the existing building or construct a replacement facility. As a result, the streetcar "carbarn" was demolished and the line shut down in November 2005, despite an offer by the staff of the Waterfront Streetcar to modify the carbarn into a sculpture to fit into the park, the route being named, by National Geographic Society, as one of the 10 Great Streetcar routes, and its great popularity with tourists and locals. A new facility has been proposed to be built in Pioneer Square to allow the route to reopen in the future. As of 2013, King County Metro, and City of Seattle fail to implement a plan for said new carbarn.
As soon as the park opened it was also criticized by the public for two policies that seemed to conflict with the easy public accessibility of an open-air museum: "Don't Touch" and "Limited Photography". The park hired security officers to enforce these rules.
On its weekend opening, both major local papers, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran articles about the museum's "Don't Touch" policy. The policy was instituted by Chief Conservator Nicholas Dorman to protect the pieces from damage, not just from scratching and vandalism, but long-term changes caused by oils left by human contact. The largest and one of the most accessible pieces, Wake by Richard Serra, has a delicate patina of rust that could be protected by a coating but has not because it conflicts with the museum's ideal to present and preserve the piece in its purest form.
One of the park's original prominent pieces, Typewriter Eraser, Scale X by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, was on three-year loan from its owner, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Unlike the other sculptures in the park, there was initially a posted sign indicating that the public did not have permission to photograph this sculpture, in spite of its position alongside Elliott Avenue, a major street running through the park. After some criticism, the prohibition was lifted, with a Seattle Art Museum spokesperson claiming it was "a misinterpretation of the loan agreement".Typewriter Eraser, Scale X moved to Seattle Center in 2016.
The piece Stinger, by artist Tony Smith, caused some debate among artists and critics because it was created after his death. The work was conceived by the artist in 1967 in a drawing and first constructed as a plywood mock-up in 1968. The painted steel version at the sculpture park was fabricated, based on the artist's design, in 1999. It was donated to the Seattle Art Museum by the artist's estate.