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In-Progress Art on Full Display in South Lake Union

The new MadArt space brings art in progress to the South Lake Union streetscape

By Seattle Mag June 27, 2014


This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Seattle magazine.

A 100-foot-tall tree is taking root in South Lake Union. Like so many things in the recently reborn neighborhood, it’s a transplant—a piece called “Middlefork” by Seattle sculptor John Grade, who, after casting a live tree in the woods near North Bend (climbing up, applying protective foil, then plaster) is creating a new take on the original. Having transported the plaster molds from the forest to the city, Grade will carry out his vision (a hollow cedar sculpture based on the casts, hanging horizontally, 100 feet long) over the course of several months in the new art studio known as MadArt Space. And thanks to the bank of street-level windows, he’ll do so in full view of the public.  
Those windows tell a story. Alison Milliman founded MadArt in 2009 with a mission to help people “discover art in unexpected ways.” A Seattle native, arts philanthropist and board member for the University of Washington School of Art, Milliman had an epiphany during a stint living in Melbourne, Australia. Already impressed by the wealth of public art in that city, she was thrilled to come upon an art installation in a shop window. “I stopped in my tracks,” she recalls. “This was art in an active retail space—for the sole purpose of being art.” It made her wonder, “What if every storefront had an art installation?”  

Walk by MadArt Space to see John Grade’s “Middlefork” in progress (325 Westlake Ave. N), or take a peek inside during the next South Lake Union Art Walk (8/1).

That question led to a show in Madison Park (Milliman’s home neighborhood) called Window Art Project, for which she commissioned 16 local artists to create installations in several storefronts. In subsequent projects, windows have been more implied than actual: MadArt in the Park, 2010, featured several large-scale temporary installations by Seattle artists in Cal Anderson Park; for Mad Homes, 2011, Milliman commissioned artists to have their way with five neighboring North Capitol Hill houses slated for demolition. And for the forthcoming Mad Campus (this fall), art will pop up in surprising places across the UW grounds.

With the opening of the permanent MadArt Space in May, the windows are back, and they are beautiful. Milliman and her husband, Glen, bought the 1927 one-story brick building on Westlake Avenue—which, legend has it, was the location of Washington’s first DMV—in 2011. They hired local architectural firm Graham Baba to transform it from a dropped-ceiling, carpeted, cubicled office space into a wide-open, sleekly industrial, glass-fronted, pedestrian-friendly art-making mecca (with killer skylights).

Milliman says the idea grew out of the MadArt in the Park event, when she learned several of the artists involved didn’t have studios large enough to complete the pieces they had in mind. MadArt Space caters to artists who work big. Participants will be hand-selected one at a time for a kind of residency (minus the sleeping quarters), the only catch being that there are no curtains, so the artistic process is visible to all passersby—the busy, the badged, the biotechie—in South Lake Union.

“We want to give people the chance to see art being made, the part you can’t see in galleries,” Milliman says. “That can help move art away from being seen as precious and hard to understand.” MadArt director Tim Detweiler has been helping Milliman bring the space to fruition for the past year and half. “We’re not a gallery. We’re not a museum. We really think of the space as a studio,” he says. (Intended for use by artists working on commissions or MadArt installations, the artwork produced here is generally not for sale.) “We want to open up the artistic process for visitors,” Detweiler says. “People could be on their way to coffee and get to see the day-by-day progress of an artist.”

MadArt Space opened its doors to visitors during the recently instituted South Lake Union Art Walk, and plans to do so for future art walks and artist talks. “We want as many people to interface with the artists as possible,” Detweiler says. That includes residents of the 12 market-rate loft apartments above the space—part of the Graham Baba build-out intended to help fund MadArt Space. Acknowledging that SLU is currently more techie than arty, Milliman says, “There are a lot of creative people in this neighborhood. Lots of makers. We want to give them an opportunity to take that to another place.” Detweiler adds that the whole point is proximity—having people who might not be connected to the art world get a taste of it, and crave more. “We can break down the intimidation people may feel about art spaces—in part because we have these huge windows.”  

And how do the artists feel about this ant-farm level of transparency? As the inaugural artist, John Grade (who created the wooden spire piercing the Museum of History & Industry’s atrium) is up for the challenge. “Part of making work for me is very private, and I would have a hard time if everything I made involved as public a process as this project,” he says. “But the point is not to scrap my studio and only work in this more social and public way—it’s an experiment, another layer.” While happy that the scale of the space will allow artists to conceive of ideas beyond the constraints of their own studios, Grade emphasizes, “The more important opportunity here is the opening up of your practice to public view—to a vulnerability that might return unexpected and meaningful insight for both the artist and the public.”


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