by Matthew Kangas

SEVENTY YEARS AFTER its founding as the state's first public art museum, the Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington in Seattle reasserts its original leadership role with a new addition, renovated original building, expanded staff, and collections. With the public opening Saturday, April 12, and a black-tie gala that evening, viewers see a completely transformed institution worthy of international recognition, and equal to any other new art museum in America.

Charles Gwathmey of Gwathmey/Siegel Architects did the tower annex for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and he has brought the same spacious proportions to the huge 6,500 square foot south gallery of the Henry, creating a dramatic skylit, sloping barrel-vault ceiling. New senior curator Sheryl Conkelton threw together "Inside" (to June 29) after ex-curator Chris Bruce's inaugural Chris Burden retrospective was cancelled. Seven artists including Louise Bourgeois and Lucas Samaras admirably fill the space with their versions of multiple-element art.

Nearby, the new 700-square-foot Media Gallery houses "Between Lantern and Laser: Video Projections" (to July 1), a film series with two-week showings of multi-projector videotapes by each of seven other artists including Judith Barry and Peter Campus.

Next to that, in the east gallery, British artist Richard Long has created a special wall installation using natural materials collected during his frequent treks on the Olympic Peninsula.

After seeing the newest part of the Henry, walk back upstairs to the north galleries, a beautifully spiffed-up version of the original Bebb & Gould 1927 building. With invisible seismic retrofitting, climate control, and new floors and lighting throughout the gracious original area, selections from the core Horace C. Henry collection of 19th-century American painting share space with recent additions of Northwest art and vintage photography.

Conkelton explores how collections in general are formed, using the permanent collection's growth as a model. With over 19,000 objects and new state-of-the-art storage directly below, "Unpacking the Collection" (to April 26 and after June 8) takes stock of the institution's six major areas: early 20th-century collecting; collecting modern art; acquiring local art; collecting the art of other cultures; collecting prints; and photography. Combining both displayable, study, and research collections, the Henry holdings now rival any university museum's in the nation.

According to registrar Judy Sourakli, who is supervising the newly remodeled Collections Study Area, the additional storage space and endowment support will allow the museum to develop more clearly defined gift and acquisitions policies as well as determine the size of an annual acquisitions fund.

After seeing the polished version of the old structure and the eye-popping proportions of the double-height new south and east galleries, stroll into the elegant cafe for an espresso. This is already a favorite haunt of students and artlovers. They linger here discussing lectures heard in the new 154-seat auditorium or after watching videos in the Media Gallery. The new bookshop could be larger considering its well-earned reputation for stocking the best of contemporary art books and hard-to find catalogs.

Besides the superb indoor spaces, the new Illsley Ball Nordstrom Sculpture Court between the two wings begins with bronzes to Willem de Kooning, Joel Shapiro, and Deborah Butterfield from the collection of Jon and Mary Shirley. Given Director Andrews' strong background in sculpture and art in public places, the Nordstorm Court is bound to be a focus of future programming.

With the Robert Venturi-designed Seattle Art Museum as the area's token Postmodern icon (revival, pastiche, cartoon), and the Frye Art Museum's new Olson/Sundberg Architects renovation as the symbol of concrete-and-steel Internationalism, the Gwathmey design is perhaps the last great Modern architecture building the campus will get in this century. Given the tough requirements of wedding the old red-brick pile to a new wrap-around facility, Gwathmey chose attractive materials like glass, cast-stone, and textured stainless steel to bring it all together. He warmed up the interior with lots of curly maple: veneers, solid floor parquet, and custom- and contract-designed furniture. All provide the perfect backdrop for the art without being ostentatious, even at $17.5 million.

Brought in on time and on budget, the project got over half its money from private donations arranged through the powerful members group, the Henry Gallery Association (HGA), and 30% from state taxpayers' pockets. In a time of economic austerity, the university now covers only physical upkeep and pays for half of the new fifteen staff positions (along with the rest of the staff salaries). Going from 5,000 square feet of show space to 14,000, and from 5,000 square feet of administrative and storage space to 32,000 will increase the overhead and operations costs, but Director Andrews and the HGA have already raised $8 million privately for the Endowment to help cover such expenses in the coming years.

This goes hand in hand with an expanded fundraising and development office. A new development officer will soon be hired after a national search. Outgoing HGA director since 1968, FiFi Caner, deserves a lot of credit for bringing the members along with the new plan and for securing a solid support base for years before the additions began.

Will the new buildings, new accessions, new staff and new expenses mean new headaches and unforeseen financial crises? Not with the parallel endowment funds raised, according to deputy director Claudia Bach. The only variable here rests with the future of the University of Washington's budget and, in turn, the attitude of the state legislature in Olympia. Since private funding for the building outstrips state funding, a precedent has been set.

Yet, one hopes that, once it becomes clear what a strong credit to the state the new Henry Art Gallery is--really now our foremost contemporary art space-- lawmakers and university administrators will become equal players in supporting the visual arts institution that is such a crucial component of our city's and state's cultural activities. In this sense, the time for such help and public patronage is now, not after 1999, or the next election.

MATTHEW KANGAS, independent art critic and curator, organized the current "J. Steensma: A Retrospective" at Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle.

Henry Art Gallery Director Richard Andrews (l) and architect Charles Gwathmey (r). Photo: Chris Bennion

Untitled (Bird and Snake), Morris Graves, tempera on laid paper, 1945, 20" x 27"

Triangles, Imogen Cunningham,
gelatin silver print, 1928, 3-7/8" x 2-3/4"

Trees and El, Stuart Davis, oil on canvas, 1931, 15 1/8" x 32", part of the collection at the Henry Art Gallery.

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