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Tacoma's New Crown Jewel Art Museum by Matthew Kangas

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The New Tacoma Art Museum is scheduled to open in Spring of 2003 The new Tacoma Art Museum

A cycle of new museum building in Tacoma has ended with the opening of the new Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) this spring. Now situated at 1701 Pacific Ave., next to the Washington State History Museum and the Museum of Glass, the new TAM completes a necklace of new museum architecture, becoming its crown jewel designed by 70-year-old New Mexico architect Antoine Predock, with help from the Seattle firms of Olsen Sundberg Kundig Allen and Rhodes, Ragen & Smith.

Far from the monumentalism of Postmodern-New York architect Charles Moore's final work, the state history museum, or the dizzying outdoor stairways at Canadian architect Arthur Erickson's showy glass museum, Predock's offering blends in rather than stands out. For his first Northwest building, the winner of the Buenos Aires grand prize for international architecture changed climates, from hot and sunny to cool and rainy. In misty Tacoma, he allocated loads of devices that filter scarce daylight into the galleries. To top it all off, he worked with Rhodes, Ragen & Smith to create an interior, open-to-the-sky atrium of rocks, moss and water that is the heart of the building.

Quadrupling the museum's prior available exhibition space, Predock also has provided for an ample museum shop, café, administration offices, lecture hall, library and education wing. All the sensitive and dedicated community outreach services that the museum has cultivated for so many years now finally have adequate room for their activities.

Visitors are eager to get a new look at a museum that has a long-standing mission of "connecting people through art," according to director Janeanne Upp, formerly of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. They can begin their tour with a small exhibit about the building of the building and Predock's other projects (to Oct. 26). After that, perhaps coffee or a bite to eat in the new 900-square-foot café before being treated to the stupendous inaugural exhibitions supervised by chief curator Patricia McDonnell, formerly of the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. She has been ably assisted by independent curators Sheryl Conkelton and Laura Landau, and associate TAM curators Greg Bell and Rock Hushka.

"Our new goal," announced McDonnell, "is to really contribute to the art and museum world internationally. We'll stay true to our roots, but there'll be a persona change. Along the way, all that needs to be accompanied by scholarly heft, including catalogs and collection research."

Patricia McDonnell

Patricia McDonnell, Chief Curator. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Art Museum

Greg Bell

Greg Bell, Curator of Contemporary Art. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Art Museum

Rock Hushka

Rock Hushka, Associate Curator.
Photo courtesy of Tacoma Art Museum

Mille Fiori by Dale Chihuly

Dale Chihuly, Mille Fiori (detail), 2003. ©Dale Chihuly, Photo: Terry Rishel

Putting their money where their mouth is, the main event, "Northwest Mythologies," is the definitive survey of the Northwest School artists Guy Irving Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey (to Aug. 10). It is accompanied by a 176-page catalog with substantial essays. For once, paintings from big East Coast museums: Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Phillips Collection, and National Gallery of Art to name a few have been borrowed to show these artists at their best. No other museum survey anywhere has ever gone this far to show the interactions and mutual influences of the Big Four in the best possible light.

More and more, it appears that TAM is becoming the institutional arbiter of Northwest art in historical exhibitions and, more important for living artists, of collection building. The second big show celebrating TAM's gorgeous new home, "Building Tradition," highlights the museum's unmatched commitment to the artists of our region. Over 60 new works have been gifted to the permanent collection. Shown in two parts, "Building Tradition I" debuts recent donations of paintings, sculptures and jewelry by such luminaries as Fay Jones, William Ivey, Robert Helm, Gaylen Hansen and Barbara Thomas and others (to Oct. 5). Then, after Oct. 14, (to May 9, 2004) "Part II" will feature accessions by Imogen Cunningham, Nancy Mee, Lori Talcott and Marita Dingus, among others.

"Building Tradition I" is on view in the beautiful Bill and Bobby Street Gallery of Northwest Art. It bolsters a collection that is already half-Northwest art, testifying to the vitality and indisputable national recognition of the generations after the Northwest School. According to McDonnell, TAM's Northwest solo shows, the "12th St. Series," will continue, too, with careful surveys by Scott Fife, Donald Fels, and Michael Brophy. She also mentions the next biennial, "Building Wise," (now the area's most respected juried show) opens November 1st (to Jan. 25, 2004), juried by ex-Soviet artists Ilya and Amelia Kabakov.

The graduated heights of the exhibition galleries are joined by a gently elevating ramp and stairs that visitors ascend from gallery to gallery, culminating in the 35-foot-high Annette B. Weyerhaeuser Gallery containing a Dale Chihuly installation on the theme of the garden (to Oct. 12). This, too, is highly appropriate considering TAM gave the Seattle glass wizard his first museum show anywhere. Furthermore, as soon as one enters the new museum lobby, their unparalleled collection of early Chihuly glass is now on view permanently in the Kreielsheimer Foundation Alcove.

Quiet on the outside, active on the inside, the new $22 million Tacoma Art Museum took a gamble on Predock and won. After all, with such a visually busy surrounding area, its low profile is tasteful and elegant. The storage spaces and exhibition areas inside are state-of-the-art with artificial and natural lighting, as well as strict climate control, the lack of which prohibited the 68-year-old institution from borrowing some big loan shows in the past.

With that taken care of and a whole lot more another blockbuster is coming up soon (Dec. 19 - Mar. 28, 2004) that never could have been borrowed without the museum's new facilities upgrades, "Paris: The American Avant-Garde 1918 - 1939". This lively survey of early American modernism, with treasures by Alexander Calder, Man Ray, Charles Demuth and Stuart Davis, reflects the zany world of the 1920s and 1930s: jazz, skyscrapers, Lindbergh's flight, and lots of good wine and French food, along with the cheap rents that attracted America's first modern artists to the mecca that Paris was until World War II. Educational activities, readings, concerts, and films are sure to be worth attending.

With the University of Washington Tacoma Campus across the street, the adjacent two museums, the new William Traver Gallery down Pacific Avenue, and the new Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center also about to open, TAM is perfectly sited to be the center of the city's cultural renaissance.

MATTHEW KANGAS, frequent contributor to Art Guide Northwest, also writes for Art in America, Sculpture, The Seattle Times and many other publications. His latest book is William Ingham: Configuration of Forces (University of Washington Press). Copyright ©Matthew Kangas, 2003

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