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Tacoma's Museum of Glass:
The Northwest Tribute to Glass

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Museum of Glass Bridge

Museum of Glass Bridge, a collaboration of Arthur Andersson, architect, and Dale Chihuly. Photomontage by Chantal Younis of the Chihuly Studio.

by Deloris Tarzan Ament

The Museum of Glass, the newest Northwest landmark, throws open its doors July 6 as an international center for contemporary art. Even the museum's approach is impressive. Drive into Tacoma on Interstate 705, and you know you're in the right place when you cross under the Bridge of Glass, a 500-foot pedestrian bridge 40 feet above the highway, that links the Museum of Glass to Tacoma's historic downtown district.

Noted Northwest artist Dale Chihuly created three installations of glass art, valued at $9 million, for the bridge. Most visible is the bridge's centerpiece, "Crystal Gate," a pair of towering 40-foot green polymer structures that stand as welcoming sentinels. They're flanked by a sheltered "Seaform Pavilion" 50 feet long, where light filters down through a glass ceiling set with dozens of glass "Seaform" sculptures, and, at the other end of the bridge, by a "Venetian Pavilion," with 110 glass sculptures housed in a grid.

Chihuly's donation of the art reflects his belief that the museum will occupy an important niche not only in the Northwest, but in the international world of art. "As a major museum in the United States devoted to glass art, and with so many artists in the Northwest working with the material, the Museum of Glass will play an important role on the international scene as well as in our community," he said. "There are more artists working with glass in the Northwest than any other place in the world. The Museum of Glass with its spectacular hotshop and galleries will become the premier showcase for new developments in the medium of glass."

The new museum's location signals a renaissance for the Tacoma waterfront. "As the first building to rise on the Thea Foss Waterway, the Museum of Glass will be the cultural cornerstone of the city's revitalized waterfront," said George F. Russell, co-chair of the Museum's board of directors. He, too, anticipates that artists and visitors from around the world will be drawn to the new museum.

The 75,000 square foot structure is the first museum in the U.S. to be designed by renowned Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, creator of the innovative Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and the striking glass-walled Provincial Law Courts in Vancouver, B.C.

The building rises in tiers. From the ground-level garage, visitors ascend to the 13,000 square foot gallery space, and hotshop. Administrative offices are on the third floor, topped by the roof plaza, which affords panoramic views of the city, the waterfront, and Mount Rainier, and access to the Bridge of Glass. The building encompasses a grand hall for special events, a 180-seat theater, and a museum store and cafe.

The museum's most striking feature is a tilted 90-foot-tall cone wrapped in stainless steel, which vents heat from the museum's working hotshop, with an amphitheater for visitors to watch artists working with molten glass at temperatures that can reach 2,000°F. In cold weather, heat from the hotshop will be circulated to warm the entire museum.

The hotshop is headed by noted artist Charles Parriott, former designer and consultant for Chihuly's glass team. Parriott's chief aim is to bring international glassmakers working in their own ethnic traditions to the new museum. It's a mission shared by curators, and visible in the opening show: "Libensky and Brychtová: Gazing Upon the Soul of Glass" -- monumental cast-glass sculptures completed since 1994 that push the boundaries of glass technology.

The Czech artists' work is a collaboration. Jaroslava Brychtová created clay interpretations of the late Stanislav Libensky's sketches and paintings. Then master craftsmen made molds of Brychtová's forms, and filled them with bits of glass which melted and fused as the pieces were fired. Many of the forms are comprised of an outer shape that contains a sphere or cube, with an inner bubble that creates what Libensky and Brychtová called an optical "inner light charge."

"These towering sculptures will take your breath away," promises chief curator Neil Watson. "To encounter the collaborative work of these remarkable artists is to confront the very spirit of glass and its potential for progress and evolution as we enter the 21st century."

The museum pays equal tribute to the Northwest art tradition with a companion inaugural exhibition, "Sounds of the Inner Eye: John Cage, Mark Tobey and Morris Graves." The show presents small retrospectives of Cage's music, and Tobey and Graves's paintings, exploring the role the artists' relationships to each other played in the development of their work. The Museum of Glass is the only U.S. venue for the show, which was developed in Germany.

One surprising term you'll never hear at the new museum: "glass artist." Museum of Glass director Josi Irene Callan promises it will never be used because it links artists with a specific medium, and smacks of decorative objects.

Artist Howard Ben Tre, whose "Water Forest," installation is a special feature of the museum's waterfront esplanade, explained in a recent issue of the Museum's publication, Fuse, "I don't think Richard Serra would define himself as a 'steel artist.' Would Martin Puryear think of himself as a 'wood artist'? Would Isamu Noguchi have seen himself as a 'stone artist'? I don't think any of those artists would have limited their context by framing it within the word of a material."

Listen and learn.

Deloris Tarzan Ament is a freelance writer about art, design, restaurants, and travel. She was Art Critic for the Seattle Times for over twenty years.


Queen, Libensky/Brychtová, 1987 - 88, cast glass, 27.5" x 15.75", collection of Dale Chihuly.

Impression of the Large Angel II

Impression of the Large Angel II, Libensky/Brychtová, 1999, glass melted in a mold, 90.5" x 44", collection of the artists.

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