Ruth Reader

Executive director Michelle Bufano departs Pratt for Chihuly Center, hopes to find links between nonprofit and for-profit worlds

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The executive director for the nonprofit Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle, Washington, Michelle Bufano is taking up a new position as the executive director at the for-profit Chihuly Garden and Glass. (Her last day at Pratt will be February 3rd.) The new tourist-friendly arts center project is a collaboration between the Wright Family, owners of the Seattle Space Needle, and glass artist Dale Chihuly.

A contentious approval-process was resolved in December 2010, when Seattle’s mayor negotiated a compromisebetween Chihuly and the local independent radio station that has also been vying to use the same public space. Bufano, who’s been in arts management for the last 20 years, says she got involved with the Chihuly project early. Concerned with how the center would affect local artists and Pratt, Bufano started conversations with the Wright Family. Seeing an opportunity for artists to show their work and a potential collaborator for Pratt,  she became an early advocate for the Chihuly Center. It wasn’t until later in the center’s development that Bufano was asked to come on as executive director. She says the offer came at an opportune time. Bufano just finished overseeing a $500,000 campus-improvement project atPratt, allowing her to leave the organization on a high note. She’s also ready to take the next step in her career.  

The for-profit gallery space will be more like a tourist attraction than a museum, though the space will feature a permanent selection of Chihuly’s work, curated byChihuly himself. Each of the nine galleries will showcase a different era of his work. Beyond showcasing Chihuly’s work, the site plans on holding a variety of events and partnering with a number of local institutions. The Chihuly Center is already partnering with Pratt Fine Arts Center and is developing a relationship with Pilchuck Glass School. Bufano has a lot of ideas about how the Chihuly Center can benefit the greater Seattle area and its artists.


“We want to have a monthly event called Center Nights,” she said as an example. Center Nights would be an event where different artists could showcase their work. It would happen once a month and would be open to artists working in a range of mediums not limited to glass. Bufano also hopes to collaborate withSeattle International Film Festival to host movie nights at the Center. Another potential collaborator is KEXP, a Seattle radio station that also placed a bid on the space at the base of the Space Needle. The radio station will now be located in a building next to Chihuly Garden and Glass on the Seattle Center campus. Bufano muses that the two organizations could host concerts among other things. Of course, the Center and it’s multitude of events are all still in the planning stages. But what remains at the core of Bufano’s planning is inclusivity.

The Chihuly Center is a for-profit art space, a measurably different approach to art than most venues take. The project is being managed and funded through Center Art LLC. The organization is the source of all initial and continuing funds. Bufano sees the funding for the Chihuly Center coming from three main sources: tickets, merchandise, and partnerships. She hopes to keep ticket prices affordable to make the site accessible to anyone. “There will also be no extra fees,” she says. Customers will have to pay one price to get on theChihuly campus, not separate prices for individual galleries. Visitors to the Space Needle may get a special price if they  decide to visit the Chihuly Center as well.

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 As far as merchandising goes, Bufano isn’t entirely sure what the gift shop will sell, but imagines the items on sale will in someway promote local artists. The Chihulysite will also be available for private events, which she expects will generate a fair amount of revenue. Chihuly Garden and Glass is expected to open this spring 2012.

—Ruth Reader