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Arts Museum Throws Into Question What It Means To Curate a Design Exhibition

Using a new format—curating the show based on a topic rather than single medium—the Bellevue Arts Museum gives two dozen architects, firms, and artists a stage to look at the ways we think about design.

Through April 24, 2022 | Bellevue, Washington

By Rachel Gallaher

A structure made from wood that is charred black.

An installation by Sapata and Santigie Fofana-Dura at the Bellevue Arts Museum BAM Biennial 2021, which has the theme of Architecture & Urban Design.

If we ranked the five senses in order of how useful they are for taking in your typical design-focused show, it’s likely that smell, along with tase, would rank at the bottom. So, it was an unexpected, yet not unpleasant, surprise when—while at the Bellevue Arts Museum BAM Biennial 2021 in Bellevue, Washington—the slightly acrid scent of charred wood led to the striking, architectural piece (made from charred salvaged timers and other cast-off materials from construction sites) by Sapata and Santigie Fofana-Dura of SF-DURA, a design collaborative based in Portland. Walking around the slightly foreboding piece, taking in the smell (the sense most often tied to memory) and the section that had a house-shaped form (triangle on top of square) stirs up a mix of reactions: comfort, uncertainty, fascination. It’s a successful crossover of art and architecture, and a testament to the fact that design doesn’t always have to be cut-and-dry: there’s room for play, for emotion.

Many of the installations at BAM Biennial 2021, running now through April 24, 2022, elicit similar sentiments. The entire show, with its theme of Architecture & Urban Design, aims to promote a larger discussion on the role of effective and equitable design in an ever-expanding urban environment, and seems to throw into question what it means to curate, or participate in, a design-focused exhibition. Featuring 26 artists, designers, architects, and firms from around the Pacific Northwest region, the BAM Biennial 2021 embraces a curatorial model this year: the artworks are theme-based, rather than medium-based, as they have been in the past.

Two colorful framed photographs on a dark wall.

Work from Seattle photographer Eirik Johnson at the BAM Biennial 2021.

“This is a very unconventional architecture and urban design show,” says Lane Engels, associate curator at Bellevue Arts Museum and a member of the jury panel which includes a group of high-caliber and important voices from the local design field including S Surface (King Street Station program lead, Seattle Office of Arts and Culture) and Simba Mafundikwa (architectural designer, GGLO Design). “Every piece, even the traditional architectural models, tackle the theme with a twist,” Engels continues. “Some major themes include Pacific Northwest history, immigration, gentrification, queering architecture, cultural identity, climate crisis, and people experiencing homelessness.”

Three tents hanging from a ceiling. They are lit from inside and silhouettes can be seen through the walls.

The collaborative installation between Johnston Architects and non-profit group Facing Homelessness.

While there are some architectural drawings and models (Jonathan Teng, Avantika Bawa, Elizabeth M. Golden) that appear more traditional, the array of mediums and approaches throughout the show is large: photographer Eirik Johnson’s large-scale, close-up images of rusted and abandoned ships invite the viewer to reconsider first impressions, while a collaborative installation from Johnston Architects and Facing Homelessness, The View from Here tackles the subject of one our region’s biggest crises. The most arresting piece (whether for its sheer size, or the fact that it’s a collection of garbage from the 1890s) is Everyday Artifacts: Working-Class Waste from 1890s Seattle, by artist Kate Clark, who directs a collaborative project, Parkeology, that, according to its website, “excavates social histories of civic space through public art projects. The installation at the Biennial features more than 800 objects discovered during excavation for the Washington State Convention Center expansion, each bagged and tagged and hung on a long curving wall that visitors encounter as they enter the exhibition. It’s an interesting snapshot into the lives of ordinary people (there are shoes, fruit pits, toys, bottlenecks, broken glass, and so much more) from 130 years ago, and reminder of the very human experiences that connect us all though time and place.

A curved white wall that has hundreds of Ziplock bags filled with items tacked to it.

'Everyday Artifacts: Working-Class Waste from 1890s Seattle,' by artist Kate Clark contains more than 800 items recovered during excavation for the Washington State Convention Center expansion.

And that may be the most interesting part of this year’s exhibition: it makes you think, sometimes in new ways, about how we use space, design, buildings, and architecture as means of refuge, progress, control, and connection, and how we can evolve these meanings to be more equitable and fairer, not only for our generations, but those to come after us, and those who come after them.

“I hope the show challenges patrons to think more consistently and deeply about the spaces which they occupy,” Eagles says. “Our built environments and shared public spaces have an immense impact on our lives, yet most folks don’t often consider the how and why of their surroundings. Each artist in the show is asking visitors to step outside of their daily lived experience and consider architecture and urban design in a new way.”


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