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Bellevue Arts Museum:
From Local Museum to National Presence

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By Matthew Kangas

Although novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald made the comment that there are no second acts in American life, the reopening of the Bellevue Art Museum as the Bellevue Arts Museum suggests that cultural institutions at least may go on to second, or even third, acts.

Founded in 1975 as a logical adjunct to America's second-oldest and largest annual craft fair, the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair (itself founded in 1947), the original Bellevue Art Museum found its first home in a converted mortuary on the southeast corner of Bellevue Square, the city's central shopping mall and one of the nation's first anywhere.

By 1985, the museum's first director, John Olbrantz, a classical archaeologist by training, shepherded the institution into a new 10,000-square-foot home on the third floor of the newly renovated Bellevue Square. With Olbrantz's departure in 1988 to become director at San Jose Museum of Art, former Seattle Art Museum director Arnold Jolles (a painting conservator and art historian) took over the reins. Commenting on the role of an art museum director at the time, Dutch-born Jolles noted, "A director has four to six years to make an impact. People have to operate quickly."

Over 30% of BAM's budget comes from the proceeds of the Fair. By 1995, then director Diane Douglas had maneuvered the museum into a superior position. She negotiated not only the museum's independence of the fair, but under her, the fair came under the museum's purview. A few years later, she helped formulate and raise money for a new building.

Douglas left one year after the dedication of the new building and was replaced by Kathleen Harleman, a museum director from Florida. Sensing financial troubles, Harleman was unable to persuade the trustees of the gravity of expensive new operating costs and soon left. Without rehearsing the entire litany of problems that ensuedunpopular exhibits, higher administrative costs, falling attendance and trustees resigning like rats leaving a sinking ship rather than donating more moneythe building closed to the public on October 4, 2003. The story made Page One of the New York Times and caused concern across the nation. What had begun as the "little museum that could" had entered into American art museum history and infamy.

hat's why the miracle of Bellevue's reopening as the "Bellevue Arts Museum" with its regained focus on former Director LaMar Harrington's legacy which focused on crafts, was cause for cautious celebration. No national coverage this time, but with a new director, Michael W. Monroe (curator-in-charge of the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery for seven years), and new curator, Stefano Catalani (a curatorial consultant to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valetta, Malta), not to mention an $800,000 makeover, the "little museum that could" is now the craft museum that might. (Before Monroe and Catalani came on board, Mark Haley, ex-candy CEO -- Brown & Haley Chocolates -- and prominent arts advocate, oversaw everything during the crisis and conceptualized all the solutions that are in place today.)

Monroe's first task was to direct a building makeover that included beefing up gallery lighting, laying down handsome European horsehair carpet on the third floor, and reconfiguring Holl's awkward spaces into usable exhibition areas instead of ostentatious hallways, rooms and passages. The building's architectural integrity is not only preserved; it is enhanced.

Opening exhibit "The Artful Teapot"

Gallery shot from the opening exhibit, "The Artful Teapot: 20th Century Expressions from the Kamm Collection."

Michael W. Monroe

Michael W. Monroe, director, Bellevue Arts Museum

Stefano Catalani

Stefano Catalani, curator, Bellevue Arts Museum. Photo: Clive Nichols

Katherine Sylvan: Arabesque

Katherine Sylvan, Arabesque, 2003, fiber, 30" x 55" x 3".

After the heartening triumphs of the opening shows ("The Artful Teapot," "Albert Paley and Art Nouveau, "TEAlicious," and "The Pilchuck Glass School in the '70s,"), the winter and spring 2006 exhibitions should prove to be equally exciting. "Looking Forward, Glancing Back: Northwest Designer Craftsmen at 50" (Oct. 27, 2005 - Feb. 26, 2006) will examine a half-century of works from the area's leading craft artist organization. "Fiber Arts International 2004" (Oct. 13, 2005 - January 22, 2006), another borrowed show, brings the latest in textiles and tapestries to the Northwest. Catalani is hard at work on "David Chatt: Two Hands, Twenty Years and a Billion Beads" (Sept. 29, 2005 - Jan. 1, 2006), a retrospective of the nationally celebrated Seattle bead artist.

Echoing Jolles's warning, Monroe concedes, "It's all going to take three to five years to organize and tour shows we are proud of. But I want to be remembered for good publications, not just to rehash. We want to check out what has been done before but, if we can't add something new, you have to ask 'Why are we doing this?'"

As to the significance of the crafts, Monroe is also confident. "As our world condenses now, it also opens up into a much greater area of boundaries. Dividing lines between art and craft have collapsed, as they should. When we put American art and craft in the global context of what other nations and cultures are doing, our mission seems very appropriate and timely."

Catalani outlined several new directions in a separate interview. "First, Pacific Rim connections will continue. . . like a possible show from Vietnam and, second, to see how the vocabulary of craft can express issues of identity and culture."

The 37-year-old native of Rome, Italy continued, "We have big expectations. You must! The museum is a living organism. I am fascinated by the opportunity to learn more about craft. This will bring me closer to an aspect of contemporary art, but in a tangential way. Craft is part of contemporary art. Sometimes, material can become content. It has implications of time, labor, and cultural identity, as well as aesthetic qualities."

With such articulate enthusiasm, both Monroe and Catalani seem the right men in the right museum at the right time. Now that attendance, membership and fundraising are all on the rise, the city of Bellevue may yet redeem itself after precipitating one of American art's darkest and most embarrassing chapters.

Matthew Kangas, consulting editor of Art Guide Northwest, is the author of two new books, Epicenter: Essays on North American Art (Midmarch Arts) and William Cumming: The Image of Consequence (U.W. Press). He lives in Seattle. Copyright Matthew Kangas 2005

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