The Chihuly Effect

What would Seattle’s proposed glass museum mean for Tacoma’s Museum of Glass? Opportunity, strangely enough.

A glasswork is reheated in the glory hole. Photograph by Ken Emly, courtesy of Museum of Glass.

“This is the sweet spot!” exclaims Museum of Glass director Timothy Close, amid the mesmerized tourists gazing down at the Hot Shop. Below, clouds of smoke billow up as tough hombres and hembras work molten glass, their faces tinted pink in the glow of the open furnace.

“It’s a multisensory museum – the fire, the rumble of the furnace; I mean, it’s theatre. The Hot Shop is what makes us distinctive in the country. It lets people know that we are the museum when it comes to contemporary glass. It puts Tacoma on the map.”

Over 180 artists from thirteen nations have worked in the Hot Shop, with many of their creations winding up in the MOG collection. “The museum is like a church,” says Close. “It’s a place of trust.” More than a million true believers have made the pilgrimage to Tacoma’s most popular museum. Its very glistening existence is a miracle, says Close. “Eight years ago, this was a Superfund site.” 

And Close notes MOG’s latest, sweetest coup: accreditation by the American Association of Museums. “It’s really a seal of approval,” gloats Close, “the highest honor the association can bestow.” MOG is America’s 775th AAM-endorsed institution and Tacoma’s third, joining Tacoma Art Museum and the Washington State History Museum. And how many glass museums are there in America? “Two,” says Close, “us and Corning Museum of Glass in New York.” Corning covers the history of glass, a focus that is distinct from MOG’s contemporary emphasis. “We don’t have to be encyclopedic, because we live at the epicenter of contemporary glass.”

Visiting Artist Jay Macdonell
at work in the Museum of
Glass Hot Shop. Courtesy
of Museum of Glass.

But a third glass palace is likely to rise next year in Seattle: a 44,450-square-foot Chihuly exhibit (popularly known as “the Chihuly museum”) at the foot of the Space Needle. As we go to press [on the November 2010 issue of City Arts magazine], Seattle’s mayor has his pen poised above the document to make it happen. “It takes zero public funds,” says Space Needle CEO Ron Sevart, “and will contribute $24 million, conservatively, over a twenty-year lease.” Sevart and company would love to get the place built by April, the fiftieth anniversary of the World’s Fair.

Others doubt this can happen, especially backers of rival plans for open green spaces and a KEXP office/public performance venue. The Seattle City Council parks committee doesn’t meet until December, and insiders don’t expect the mayor to get legislation to the Council until early 2011. Still, it’s hard to see how the officials of a broke city can turn down $24 million in free money, let alone a crowdpleaser like Chihuly.

But what will it cost the Museum of Glass? “Pity Tacoma if Seattle becomes the destination for Chihuly glass,” wrote ex-Tacoma art critic Jen Graves in The Stranger. MOG has had at least one meeting to discuss the scary prospect.

“I am sure the museum is nervous about this new Chihuly museum,” says one glass art insider too nervous to give his name, “but they also know they can’t do anything but fully support it, as Chihuly has been such an immense supporter of the MOG.” I ask Close whether the Seattle Chihuly museum would take visitors away from Tacoma or make the Northwest a still bigger glass epicenter, whisking tourists from the Space Needle to the Hot Shop. But he completely ducks the question with a sixty-five-word answer that concludes, “We’ll stick to our mission and keep moving forward.”

Seattle art critic Regina Hackett says MOG need not fret. “If Chihuly Inc. happens at the Needle, Chihuly people will run buses to Tacoma. They know that when the game is attracting an audience, more is more.”

Says Seattle’s Sevart, “We’ve had conversations very early with the Museum of Glass and let them know we’re not after donors or grants. I explained why it’s different, the big picture of what they are that we won’t be. We won’t have a Hot Shop. There’s an energy and magic they only have down there. We’ve already had discussions with Gray Line. These same people are going to get on a bus and go to the other glass museum. Or go directly to the Museum of Glass.”

The anonymous glass expert agrees that the Hot Shop’s proprietor should stop sweating and chill. “I believe the Seattle Chihuly museum is going to do more good than harm.” •