Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

The SAM Cars Are Coming Down

For the past eight years, visitors to the downtown Seattle Art Museum have been greeted by nine white Ford Taurus cars that hang from the ceiling of SAM’s expansive main lobby.

“I noticed them before I even walked into the building,” says Zach, a visitor from Maryland. “It’s like cars are exploding, right?”

The cars are an artwork called “Inopportune: Stage One,” created by Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang.

Each car is fitted with a halo of small colored lights that flash and wink in a sequence that moves from one car to the next. It looks a little bit like fireworks.

That makes sense: The artist is a pyrotechnics aficionado who helped design the fireworks displays for the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“Inopportune: Stage One” has been on display since the museum opened this building addition. But now officials say it’s time for the artwork to come down.

SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Catharina Manchanda, says the installation was never intended to be up for more than two or three years.

“We’ve had a few electrical issues,” she explains. “Some of the parts have to be refurbished, so it’s a good time to take the cars down and give them a good look-over.”

While not everyone likes the installation (The Stranger’s art critic Jen Graves recently called it “one of the worst-installed art juggernauts” she’d ever seen), many museum-goers have found it surprising and delightful.

On a recent rainy morning, south King County resident Christina Stalnaker walked into the museum for the first time and her jaw dropped at the sight of the cars.

“I really like the motion of them. You can just see them tumbling through the air.”

Stalnaker is one of thousands of people David Snead has talked with over his five-plus years with the museum. He’s one of the people who staff SAM’s admissions kiosk.

Snead estimates that 80 to 90 percent of museum visitors are intrigued by the cars. The rest ask him whether this kind of installation is really art.

“I remind them when the Impressionists started, that wasn’t art either!” Snead says.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation will be on display through Monday, Jan. 18, then it will come down for good. The cars will go into storage; the museum has no plans to display them again.

Instead, large-scale paintings will greet SAM visitors. Curator Manchanda hopes fans of the cars give those paintings a chance.

“Every time I take down a major installation, people ask if I’ll put it back on view,” she says.

She asks people to keep an open mind about what comes next for the SAM lobby.

“Change and variety are truly a good thing! Please be excited for the new things that are about to come!”

Why you can trust KUOW