The Next Wave

Tacoma Art Museum is well-positioned to help put the city on the art world map.

Dale Chihuly, Ma Chihuly’s Floats, 2006, Blown glass. Photograph: Teresa N. Rishel.

Antoine Predock envisioned the central courtyard as a moss garden. When heat playing off the building’s reflective surfaces proved inhospitable to cool-climate vegetation, a problem promptly morphed into an opportunity. What might have been a placid green oasis is now a dynamic focus of this splendid museum, a sweeping stone wave fashioned by artisan Richard Rhodes from 500-year-old granite pavers from China, that may be the single most dramatic exhibition space in the Northwest.

Glass art legend and Tacoma native son Dale Chihuly installed a swarm of his luminous “Niijima floats” in the courtyard earlier this year. Stone and colored glass became ocean and buoyant allusion to the fishing trade, past and present, which spans the Pacific from Japan to Washington. Entitled “Ma Chihuly’s Floats,” the piece also pays tribute to the artist’s mother. It is, in every way, a transporting sight.

It’s no accident that this dilemma sorted out so well. Conceived, designed and programmed as an institution keenly responsive to its environment in the broadest sense, the Tacoma Art Museum has positioned itself as one of the country’s most vibrant and promising regional museums. Now, under the leadership of a bright and resourceful young director, Stephanie Stebich, the 71-year-old museum feels wonderfully renewed and re-energized, poised to expand its mission, clarify and deepen the meaning of art in the Northwest and help drive the impressive and far-reaching Tacoma renaissance in the process.

“My goal is to make sure that people feel welcome and inspired,” says Stebich,  who came to Tacoma in 2005 after stints at such major institutions as the Guggenheim Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. “People feel very excited about their neighborhood museum here and I mean that in the very best sense of ‘neighborhood.’”

The 50,000-square-foot building with a naturally flowing floor plan started winning admirers the moment it opened in 2003 and continues to assert a major “wow” factor today. “I love the building.  I love the natural light,” says Seattle Art Museum Director Mimi Gates. “It’s one of the best modest-sized museums I’ve seen.” Milwaukee Art Museum Director David Gordon concurs about this “very interesting museum,” citing the “great advantage of being on a well-traveled route between Portland and Seattle.” (The much larger Milwaukee, by comparison, “isn’t on the way to anywhere,” Gordon dryly notes.) Adds Merrill Wagner, a New York artist and Tacoma native who has exhibited often in her home city, “The building is very, very beautiful and a wonderful place to show and see art.”

 Showing and seeing art, finally, is how any museum must make its mark and contribution to the life and vitality of its community. To that end, Stebich and her curatorial staff see the gorgeous $22-million home they have in the Predock building not as a fixed destination but rather as an accessible and flexible point of entry for an experience of art framed but unbounded by museum walls. Pleased as Stebich is by TAM’s booming attendance figures — a projected 80,000 visitors this year — the director is just as excited about the ways in which those people are engaging with the museum.

This past July, when the staff mounted a Bastille Day celebration in conjunction with a touring exhibit of French drawings, a thousand people showed up to sketch in the galleries, watch a dance performance, hear French hip-hop music and sample French wines and cheeses. Another point of satisfaction came in the public’s response to a show by Seattle sculptor Scott Fife. So beloved was one piece, an 11-foot lop-eared gray dog named “LeRoy, the Big Pup,” that the beguiling pooch now resides in the lobby with a collection box beside him. Stebich is confident that the “adopt the puppy” program will result in LeRoy being acquired by the museum for its permanent collection.

Stebich, 40, had never been to Tacoma before she took the job, and admits that she knew very little about Northwest art when she did. German-born, she was raised in New York, educated at Columbia and New York University and fully connected to the East Coast art establishment as both a museum professional and the daughter of a gallery owner. That background might make her an unlikely candidate to lead a museum whose identity and purpose are so clearly defined by its region. About 65 percent of Tacoma Art Museum’s permanent collection consists of work by Northwest artists.  Many of its shows, including the hotly anticipated Northwest Biennials, are drawn from artists living in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana. But Stebich also brings an outsider’s freshness, an external light that can illuminate connections and create new contexts.

  Consider, for example, a recent juxtaposition of the 19th century French drawing exhibit (“The Essence of Line: French Line Drawing from Ingres to Degas”) and a show by the prominent Northwest figurative ceramicist Akio Takamori.  For Stebich, the two shows spoke eloquently to one another about the nature of line, both classical and calligraphic, and its expressive variations and possibilities.

A pair of upcoming photography exhibits — one by Paul Strand and the other featuring images of the artist Frida Kahlo — should raise more interesting conversations by posing questions about photography both as an artistic medium and a means of revealing the artist. Two shows opening in September, “Trimpin: Conloninpurple” and “Symphonic Poem: Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson,” invite visitors to engage their senses — not only visual — in multiple ways. “Conloninpurple” is a gigantic interactive wood-and-metal musical instrument; the Robinson folk-art show involves the traditions of storytelling and oral history. “The Art of Eric Carle,” by the famed children’s book illustrator, joins the parade at Tacoma Art Museum in October.

“We can be nimble both in the exhibitions we organize ourselves and those we choose to take from other places,” says Stebich, who loved the “surprising connections” she and others found between a touring show of sweeping Hudson River School paintings and the ebullient grandeur of “LeRoy” sculptor Fife’s work.

The museum’s design invites viewers to discover congruences and instructive contrasts for themselves. The gracefully connected galleries open off a central ramp that rises around the stone courtyard, breaking down arbitrary divisions between the shows. If the effect isn’t quite as emphatic as that of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral at the Guggenheim, Tacoma Art Museum’s gentle incline does create a sense of unfolding drama as the visitor ascends. At the top, in keeping with the museum’s commitment to community involvement, the prime spaces with vistas of both Mt. Rainier and the city are reserved for classrooms, a public-use studio and library. Administrative offices and other support services are all situated below the galleries.

On a recent morning walk-through of the museum, Rock Hushka, curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art, looked like an awed newcomer himself. The spacious light-filled galleries, with ceilings that range from 14 to 35 feet, might make any curator swoon a little. But Hushka was just as eager to point out some of the museum’s less apparent assets, like the abundant Internet portals and “apertures” (architect Predock’s term for windows) that can be opened or closed to let in different views, including that of Tacoma’s freeway ramps and working waterfront. “The museum is not embarrassed about its location and the grittiness of the city’s industrial history,” says Hushka.

These days, thanks to a peerless site and some visionary planning, the Tacoma Art Museum sits right in the heart of a city undergoing a bold transformation that does not reject the area’s roots. In a rare confluence of major cultural institutions at a city’s core, Tacoma Art Museum, the fine Washington State History Museum, the celebrated Museum of Glass with its tapering tower profile and a pristinely restored Union Station unify a formerly desolate region between the boat-lined Thea Foss Waterway and downtown. The gracefully muscular Bridge of Glass, which spans a busy freeway, is both the visual and metaphorical symbol of the linkage.

On the downtown side, across from Tacoma Art Museum’s inviting entrance, a new public plaza was opened earlier this year. This will serve as a crucial pedestrian magnet and feature live performances. A burgeoning Tacoma branch of the University of Washington promises further changes and more street life. The sleek Tacoma Link Light Rail line runs through this vital new district, in a route from the Tacoma Dome at one end to the city’s theatre district at the other.

Today, a year-and-a-half after assuming a post she first viewed with “some reservations,” Stebich has found her footing in Tacoma and eagerly anticipates the strides ahead. She speaks excitedly of the museum’s holdings in Northwest jewelry, her new-found love of glass art and her delight in the young painters and printmakers chosen for the museum’s 2006 Neddy Artist Fellowships. Stebich was especially gratified that one of them, Dawn Cerny, chose to install her work in a space above a freight elevator. “I just loved that,” says Stebich. “She saw something in the museum that no one else did.”

When Stebich gets going on Tacoma as an “orbital city” to Seattle — as Akron is to Cleveland or Long Beach to Los Angeles — the potential for her museum all but blooms into view. “There is so much you can do here that you can’t at a larger museum,” she maintains. “We can provide the intimacy of an art experience that gets lost as you track up. I believe this community is the museum’s real strength, because of its size, its gritty history and its emerging status as a destination.”

As the Tacoma Art Museum approaches its 75th anniversary in 2010, fulfillment of its potential is still to come. John Buchanan, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and former director of the Portland Art Museum, believes the upside is high. “I have great hopes for them,” he says. “They’ve already done some very nice and focused exhibitions. I think they’ve done a fine job at building a multi-purpose regional arts museum for their community.”

But the Tacoma Museum, as Buchanan and others point out, should not try to be all things to all people. Its great strength and great promise lie in the art of the Northwest. Free from the aspiration to be a comprehensive institution, TAM can go deeper and be more daring, take chances with its acquisition of Northwest art and the way it builds shows around and with it. That’s the liberating challenge Tacoma Art Museum and its director face.

The expectations are sharpened by a sense of uncertainty. “Stephanie is young and very smart about art,” says artist Merrill Wagner. “And she has some very bright people working with her. But it’s still an open question as to where this museum is going. A lot of what happens here depends on the kind of support she can generate.”

Money is part of that, adds Wagner, but not all. “Tacoma is a very creative place. I hope Stephanie can get people talking to each other more and make the museum a forum for ideas as well as a place to see art.”

Stebich couldn’t agree more. One of the sounds she loves to hear, she says, is that of more chairs being rattled into place for a lecture or symposium in the museum’s auditorium. Another is the babble of visitors in the galleries, talking, arguing and struggling to find the words for something that’s just astonished them. ‹