Featured Art Libraries

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Featured Art Library: Seattle Art Museum

The Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library is one of four libraries at the Seattle Art Museum and is located at the museum’s downtown Seattle location.


Published 1/19/2021

The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) began as the Seattle Fine Arts Society (SFAS) in 1906, and in 1927, the SFAS requested donations to create an art reference library for members. "Too much importance cannot be stressed upon the need of such a valuable addition to the Society," reported the 1927 Bulletin of the Seattle Fine Arts Society. In 1929, the Society changed its name to the Art Institute of Seattle, to be more inclusive, and continued to offer an art reference library. In 1932, the Art Institute renamed itself the Seattle Art Museum and began construction on its official new home in the Olmsted Brothers-designed Volunteer Park. SAM solicited monetary donations that were, as the 1932/1933 Annual Report noted, invested in “a reference library…including many of the finest art publications of recent years.”

In 1933, the Seattle Art Museum opened its new permanent home and hired its first librarian, who was one of only eight original employees. The reference library was situated in the lower level of the building adjacent to the auditorium and incorporated Seattle architect Carl F. Gould’s Art Deco designs. The library’s initial holdings included: 1,100 reference books, a collection of over 3,000 mounted reproductions, and more than 2,000 slides. In the first few years of its existence, the reference library built up its holding through purchases and donated titles received from other museums, libraries, local and international art collectors. The museum itself had a strong emphasis on Asian art, being founded by Asian art collectors, Dr. Richard Fuller and his mother, Margaret McTavish Fuller, and the library reflected that emphasis as it included Richard Fuller’s library and donated works from other Asian art collectors. In the following years, the library established a photography archive, created a formal slide library, and collected educational films and children’s books, the latter of which were circulated to the public and external organizations.

 Seattle Art Museum Library. A brightly lit room with filled bookshelves, tables and chairs.

Credit: Courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum Photo Archives.

Over the years, the collection continued to grow through acquisitions, a robust library exchange program, and ongoing donations from important local, national, and international collectors. Library growth in the 1960s had precipitated a need for additional space and new stacks were constructed in the museum’s sub-basement. By the 1970s, the collection had nearly outgrown this new space, and the rapidly expanding slide library and photography archive moved to the former boardroom space adjacent to the library. The reference library had nearly 20,000 volumes and 80,000 slides and included five staff members by the 1980s.

Seattle Art Museum Library stacks. A room containing rows of empty bookshelves.

Credit: Courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum Photo Archives.

Like the library, the museum itself had outgrown its facilities at Volunteer Park by the 1960s, and had opened its Modern Art Pavilion at the Seattle Center, but additional space was still necessary. After nearly two decades of planning, a new Seattle Art Museum (SAM downtown) was opened in downtown Seattle in 1991 and its former building in Volunteer Park was renovated to become the Asian Art Museum. The reference library was split into two sites: the Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library at SAM downtown—named after a local, pioneering communications magnate—which focused on all areas of art except Asian, and managed the archives and slide library; and the McCaw Foundation Library for Asian art, which would open a few years later at the Asian Art Museum. The new Seattle Art Museum downtown was designed by architect Robert Venturi, who also lent his postmodern designs to the Bullitt Library.

Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library. A room with tables and chairs, study carrels, magazine display shelves, and counter.

Credit: Susan Dirk, courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum Photo Archives.

Since its opening at SAM downtown, the Bullitt Library has retired its slide library, but significantly built up its digital collections and grown its print collections. Highlights include the libraries of African art collector Katherine White, European decorative arts collectors Dr. Urich and Stella Fritzsche, a 10,000-volume library on American art purchased and donated by American art collectors Susan Winokur and Paul Leach, SAM’s Council on American Art, and the Marie Lamfrom Foundation (whose inclusion greatly altered the reading room), the Northwest Artist’s Files collection, and developing artists’ book and photobook collections. The Bullitt Library is open to museum staff, members, and the general public and it’s collection currently stands at over 50,000 volumes.

Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library. A room containing bookshelves, magazine display shelves, tables, chairs, computers, and a person using a computer.

Credit: Traci Timmons.

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