Tacoma Art Museum - designed by Antoine Predock
The Tacoma Art Museum is the latest addition to a growing list of regional museums that have recently opened new or expanded facilities. Representing a dramatic upgrade from the old bank that was TAM’s previous home, the sleek, steel-clad new building was designed by highly-regarded New Mexico architect Antoine Predock. The museum now joins neighbors the Museum of Glass and the Washington State History Museum as members of a revitalized downtown Tacoma cultural community. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin offers these thoughts on the new building and its inaugural exhibits.
If there’s ever a time to judge an art museum, it’s when it opens a new venue. Museums take advantage of the predictable surge in visitors and attention to put their best face forward, planning exhibits to showcase their particular institutional identity. And creating a clear identity makes a difference to everything from attracting donor dollars to raising turnstile counts.
So what do we learn about the Tacoma Art Museum as it preens for our approval in its sparkling new digs? First and foremost, that it aims to spotlight regional art, and in doing so stand out from the crowd. All three of the opening shows highlight local talent, and at least two out of three are exceptional, in spite of showing the work of artists who are, to put it mildly, already well-exposed.
One of these sets of ever-visible artists is the Northwest Mystics foursome of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson. The TAM show makes us almost forget how often we’ve seen these guys lately, by focusing on the intense interactions between members of the group during their younger years, a subject not previous examined in such depth.
Perhaps intentionally, the look of these mud-colored, earnestly introspective paintings are worlds apart from the P.T. Barnum extravaganza occupying the gallery next door. Unlike the work of his mystic predecessors, Dale Chihuly’s crowd-pleasing and crowd-attracting installation, "Mille Flores" makes no pretense of introspection or symbolic content. An enormous all-glass tropical garden, some of its brilliantly colored forms mime the look of real flowers, while others, like the glass tendril trees as tall as telephone poles, are vintage Chihuly. It is the museum’s great good fortune that a native son was available to so buoyantly fill a gallery designed expressly for such outsized works.
The final of the three inaugural shows, Building Traditions, serves to highlight the commitment of the museum to collecting and exhibiting works by local artists not yet of iconic status. Since there is little these artists obviously have in common other than their zip codes, it will be up to the museum to highlight in future shows the ideas and trends that connect and inform their work.
And what of the museum building itself, which after all is reason for these festivities? Ranged against the other recent arrivals on the local scene, TAM ranks with the Frye Art Museum as the most successful of the designs. Less confusing than the Henry, much more sympathetic to art than Bellevue, lacking the Seattle Art Museum’s infamous stairway to nowhere, and with far more handsome galleries than the Museum of Glass (though much less spectacular from the street), Predock’s building also does the best job in integrating inside and outside, natural daylight and artificial illumination.
On a sunny summer day, when the stainless steel skin of the building both melts into and contrasts with a cloud-studded sky, and Mount Rainier is perfectly framed by strategically-placed windows, the museum is indeed a graceful, welcoming place to both enjoy the best of regional art and to appreciate the place that continues to inform that art.