Where to See the Best Art in Seattle: From Eclectic Museums to Exciting Community Projects

There’s still plenty of great art in Seattle thanks to the work of both established cultural institutions and up-and-coming community groups.

A large 2D statue of a man
Is Seattle still a thriving hub of the arts? Observer correspondent Nick Hilden says yes. Nick Hilden

Many have written Seattle off—artistically speaking—due to its Amazonification at the hands of one of the many billionaires who are suspiciously eager to move to space. After Bezos and a few other tech megacorps set up shop there, it was widely lamented that the resulting rent explosion and condo culture had made the city unlivable and uninspiring for the art-inclined. That is, to some degree, accurate insofar as it’s accurate for most major metro areas in the U.S. Starving artists can’t afford $2,000 micro-studios that are too puny for creative projects in the first place. Cost of living is an art killer.

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But the steel and glass spit-polish nightmare that has been applied to clean up once grungy neighborhoods like the Denny Triangle—the defining feature of which was at one time a tow lot presided over by an enormous set of pink plastic toes that looked like a prop from a John Waters film; where today a five dollar breakfast sandwich costs $16.95—is only part of the picture. There’s still plenty of great art to be found in Seattle, thanks not only to well-curated museums but no small amount of effort and innovation on the part of community organizers.

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While I am a Seattle native who came up in its gritty underground art scene, it’s been at least a decade since I’ve spent any serious time there, so before returning to dive into its present-day art offerings I reached out to Seattle artist Victoria Haven. Her recommendations fell into two categories: established art institutions and up-and-coming community endeavors. We’ll begin with the former.

I’ll admit that I went into the Seattle Art Museum with modest expectations as I live in Mexico City where the museum offerings are enormous and generally frequent some of the most prestigious art shrines in the world, but my pretensions were misguided. It turns out that the museum boasts an impressively eclectic range of works, leaning hard into contemporary abstraction, hosting excellent visiting exhibitions, and housing a handful of popular modern masters like Rothko, Pollack and Jacob Lawrence.

The interior of a roomy art museum with gilt frame paintings on the walls
Frye Art Museum. Nick Hilden

From there, I apped an e-bike and zipped up the hill to the Frye Art Museum, which began as the private collection of the Frye family (whose members were devoted to providing public access to great artworks) and eventually expanded to show exhibitions from emerging artists. The section on Native American art and totems was striking, and one can’t help but be charmed by its salon, the walls of which are jam-packed with a broad if somewhat conservative assortment of turn-of-the-century works, with standouts Franz Stuck’s The Sin, Bouguereau’s Flight of Love, Franz von Lenbach’s Voluptas and you’ve gotta love Koester’s ducks.

A darkly hued painting of a woman whose torso is exposed
Franz Stuck’s The Sin. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

Further up the hill still is the Seattle Asian Art Museum nestled in Volunteer Park. The Art Deco building itself is a work of art; housed in it is an array of stunning figure and porcelain works spanning the past thousand years along with a few large-scale contemporary exhibitions (“Anida Yoeu Ali: Hybrid Skin” is on view through July 7). When the weather is right, the park outside provides a gorgeous view of the city.

The exterior of a museum
Seattle Asian Art Museum. Nick Hilden

Victoria Haven also recommended that I hit up the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington and the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington’s third largest city about thirty minutes away, but I only had so much time during this particular visit and wanted to see some of Seattle’s smaller-scale art efforts. So from there, I hit the freeway south to the revitalized industrial district of Georgetown, where according to Haven there is a new and exciting art scene brewing.

She is right. I arrived somewhat early in the day, and galleries, shops and restaurants all over the neighborhood were preparing for the Georgetown Art Attack, which happens each second Saturday, and there was a good vibe in the air.

I ended up at the Mini Mart City Park, which turned out to be excellent indeed. A remediated gas station, the non-profit organizers have transformed it into a gallery where they not only show emerging artists, but experiment with green tech, host movies, potlucks, readings and live music, and generally exist in the overlap between art, sustainability, and community. Having just purchased the house next door to launch an artist residency program, suffice it to say that they have a lot going on, and as the organizers prepared for Art Attack there was a palpable sense of purpose and togetherness that verged on magnanimity. Good stuff, Mini Mart City Park.

An art gallery that looks like a convenience store
Mini Mart City Park. Nick Hilden

But alas, no Art Attack for me, for I had an appointment back north in the historically queer arts district of Capitol Hill. Here I went to what has long been my watering hole whenever I’m in town—Vermillion.

This bar/gallery/community space has long represented the best aspects of the neighborhood. Facing the street is its gallery, which tends to show bold, experimental artists. To the rear of this is a cozy, red-bricked bar that has gritty European vibes. Between the two spaces, I’ve seen them host DJs, bands, rappers, foreign film showings, poetry readings and so on. Seated at the bar or on the terrace out front you can count on conversation with dedicated regulars who are more than and perhaps at times overly willing to share the local word.

A colorful mural of a blue-haired woman singing into a mic
A mural on Seattle’s 2nd Ave. Nick Hilden

As for where to stay in Seattle, at one time I would have advised finding an Airbnb but good hotels cost less at this point, so I have two hotel recommendations.

The Kimpton Palladian downtown on 2nd Ave is conveniently close to the Seattle Art Museum and several other key attractions. Its décor is upscale vintage Seattle with an offbeat edge—my room had a throw pillow with David Bowie’s face on it, which is a good sign—and they provide guests with free bikes. A bit closer to Capitol Hill is Hotel Max, which is full of nods to the local music scene. The hotel offers a vinyl library to play on in-suite record players, and the lobby is decorated with guitars and memorabilia related to Seattle’s iconic Sub Pop Records.

Finally—food. Seattle is thick with restaurants of high and low repute, but there are two that are essential. The classic diner dive 5 Point Café is open 24 hours, and it is frequently patronized by local and visiting rock stars. And then there’s Dick’s, the famed Seattle restaurant chain that has turned the basic burger, fries and shake combo into a delicious work of minimalist art.

Where to See the Best Art in Seattle: From Eclectic Museums to Exciting Community Projects