by Cydney Gillis

Seattle's historic Pioneer Square has had its colorful ups and downs, from the "Skid Road" of yesteryear to today's walking showcase of art and antique shops along the area's cobblestone streets. A blend of quaint nostalgia and bustling business, carriages and nightclubs, Pioneer Square never ages because, like its latest wave of growth, there's always something new just around the corner.
Burned down in the Great Fire of 1889, the original core of Seattle, now known as Pioneer Square, emerged from the ashes to become a vibrant commercial area. By the 1960s, its shops and factories empty, the district faced the wrecking ball. In 1970, after gallery owner Richard White, architect Ralph Anderson and others, pressed for preservation, the city declared the waterfront area between Yesler and King a Historic District. Within a few short years, drawn by elegant restorations of the Grand Central Arcade and the Pioneer Building, art and antique dealers had adopted the area as a chic location.
Today, with the emergence of a new axis of galleries along Jackson Street and First Avenue, Pioneer Square is reinventing itself, revealing that the area remains "the soul of the city," in the words of art dealer, Robert Nowinski.
Located at Jackson and Occidental, the new Meyerson & Nowinski Gallery is the centerpiece of Pioneer Square's current renaissance. The 5,000 square-foot venue, which opened in April, incorporates five galleries devoted to eighteen shows per year: two-month exhibits of original works by modern masters such as Picasso, Mondrian and other 19th and 20th Century icons, plus monthly contemporary shows curated by Chris Bruce, former curator of the University of Washington's Henry Gallery. Bruce will be working with national and regional artists such as Dennis Evans, Robert Helm, Ginny Ruffner and Patti Warashina.
With an eye on positioning Seattle as a world-class destination for art buyers, Meyerson & Nowinski also features an on-line virtual gallery "bringing art from London, Zurich, Los Angeles, New York--all the art centers of the world," explains Nowinski. "It's an entirely new concept." While the concept would have worked elsewhere, Nowinski compares Pioneer Square to New York's Soho district for its "old history, diverse businesses and cluster of galleries."
A few doors away, Northwest Fine Woodworking, formerly known as Northwest Gallery of Fine Woodworking, recently relocated from First and Washington to First and Jackson, creating what director Chris Brookes and others are calling an "anchor" in the southward expansion of art and antique dealers along First Avenue. With its huge display windows and 4,000 square foot showroom (double its former site), the store features an array of sleekly crafted furniture, gifts and sculpture, ranging from a maple "Cloud Chair" by Judith Ames to the mahogany ribbons of a face carved by Michael Davock.
Together, Northwest Fine Woodworking and Meyerson & Nowinski give a new focus to Jackson Street and the immediate area, home to a veritable wealth of art and antique galleries. Although the traditional gallery thoroughfare of Occidental Avenue has seen many changes over the years, it still has its pillars. In business since 1969, the Foster/White Gallery features a showroom devoted to famed glass artist Dale Chihuly. Davidson Gallery has doubled the size of its antique and contemporary print centers. Glasshouse, a working glass studio, continues to be a major draw.
Another area that will benefit from First and Jackson's higher profile is the Florentine Building "promenade" below King on First Avenue, where Mia Gallery, Kagedo Japanese Art & Antiques, Clarke & Clarke, Asian Furnishings and Azuma Gallery have opened or moved in recent years. Azuma, which specializes in contemporary Japanese art, relocated from Capitol Hill to Pioneer Square because "it's a gallery hub," says owner Linda Suyama. "The number of people coming down to buy art has been incredible." With so many new galleries, the monthly First Thursday art walk, an evening event started in 1985, now fills Occidental and First Avenues, even in the Seattle rain. "It's been wall-to-wall people," says Brookes, who notes the event doesn't always lead to sales. "But," says gallery owner Sam Davidson, "When you get 3,000 to 5,000 people coming to one place to look at art, it's bound to have a positive spin-off."
Looming over this upswing, unfortunately, is the prospect that the City of Seattle will site its new baseball stadium in the north lot of the Kingdome, directly adjacent to Pioneer Square's galleries. With a site decision to come this spring, art dealers are saying that a site south of the Kingdome would be workable, but that the north lot would be disastrous. Gallery owner Don Foster says he and other gallery owners will move rather than face two years of bankrupting construction-- a tragedy that would forever change the role that Pioneer Square plays as Seattle's cultural soul.
Cydney Gillis also writes on the visual arts for the Seattle Weekly/Eastsideweek.

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