By Lisa Kinoshita
On November 15, after a frenzied end run of full-steam-ahead construction, the Tacoma Art Museum unveiled its new wing, and the Erivan and Helga Haub collection of Western art. The Haub collection, comprised of 295 works, is the first great private collection of Western American art to become public in many years, and the first located in the Pacific Northwest. It is the biggest-ever gift to TAM. The museum expansion, designed by award-winning Seattle architect Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects, adds 15,000sq. ft. to the original 50,000sq. ft., and more than doubles its exhibition space with five distinct galleries.
Hot damn, Tacoma’s got a “new” museum!
“This is a coup for Tacoma,” said a beaming TAM Director, Stephanie Stebich, at a press preview. The $15.5 million museum addition was delivered “on time, on budget and beyond expectations.”
The ink continues to flow over the new art collection (check out this review by Amanda Manitach in City Arts Magazine), and the coolly hybridized building that houses it. The Haubs’ gift features the work of 3 Native American artists: John Nieto, Kevin Red Star and Doug Hyde; 13 women artists including Georgia O’Keeffe; icons of the Western genre including Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran, Charles M. Russell, George Catlin, and Albert Bierstadt; and many others. The opening exhibition of 130 works has provoked controversy, as art should – namely, about the portrayal of American Indians (and frontier existence) by white artists, many of whom had never set foot in the Old West. In a proactive move, TAM has responded by inviting respected Native American artists such as Shaun Peterson, a member of the Puyallup Tribe, to write information cards to accompany and illuminate select paintings (read The Stranger critic Jen Graves’ take on the controversy, and the art).
The Haubs are German art collectors and philanthropists who honeymooned in Tacoma many decades ago, raised three sons here, and kept a sweet spot for the place (they divide their time between Gig Harbor, Wyoming and Germany) even as they rose up the Forbes list of richest people on the planet. When they were looking to place their bounty of Western art, Tacoma seemed like a natural choice.
One measure of this collection’s importance is the number of inquiries coming in from museums all over the world about the new acquisitions, said Stebich. For TAM, the behest has resulted in the securing of a rare exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, next year.
The Haub wing is the first museum project for Tom Kundig, recipient of ten American Institute of Architects national design awards, and named one of Architectural Digest‘s “AD 100” this year. His low-slung TAM addition makes for a fully integrated and artful extension of the original museum by Antoine Predock, finished in 2003.
Kundig has given the museum’s facade new focus with a 30′ stainless steel canopy that towers over a sleek horizontal corridor (the sculpture hall), running along downtown’s main street, Pacific Avenue. While Predock’s celebrated modernist design has a silvery skin that shimmers and blends in with the surrounding shades of water and sky, Kundig’s expansion adds subtle dimension in the form of three exterior sliding screens, each approx. 16′ high x 16′ wide, that roll on tracks. A hand-turned crank controls the slatted panels, allowing both control of the natural light coming into the galleries, and the ability to open evening performances and activities to public view. The warm, bronze-tone panels are constructed of Richlite, a hard resin and recycled paper composite (also used for skateboard hardscapes), made right here in Tacoma. The low screens create an elegant, light-pierced silhouette that echoes a tribal longhouse; in motion, they evoke the slow-moving boxcars of Tacoma’s industrial past, along with hints of a culturally dynamic future.
At a press preview, both Kundig and Stebich emphasized the importance of the Northwest light as an aesthetic consideration for the exhibition galleries. Metaphorically, light is an unpredictable constant forever in flux, embodying the eternal background for past and present evolutions, for transitions between modernism and tradition, for the breaking of old social structures under the force of emergent ones. In both time and space, Kundig illuminates the meeting point of old and new by directing light; he explores the edges – the liminal area – where things happen.
The TAM expansion is the linchpin of a major transformation downtown at the intersection of 17th and Pacific Avenue which, unbeknownst to many Tacomans, is the site of a rich cache of local history. Across Pacific Avenue, at the corner of the University of Washington-Tacoma campus, fresh landscaping commemorates the Prairie Line Trail, the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad (oddly, this historic landmark of Abraham Lincoln was neglected and weed-covered for years). Directly facing TAM is Tollefson Plaza, under current redesign to become a more welcoming public space. The brick-covered plaza, once the site of a Puyallup tribal medicine house, is the site of Shaun Peterson’s soaring cedar carving, “Welcome Figure”.
Many are the discoveries awaiting visitors to the “new” TAM; here are just a few:
– Julie Speidel’s monumental sculpture installation, “Kinetic Repose” flanking the lower-level entrance by the parking garage. These hulking, faceted works in primary colors were inspired by glacial moraine and provide a visual anchor and wow factor to a previously gloomy and featureless area.
– Marie Watt’s “Blanket Stories: Transportation Object, Generous Ones, Trek”, a dramatic projectile of an installation (actually blankets collected from the community and cast in bronze) cascading from the museum’s facade.
– Rare bronzes and other sculptures in the Haub galleries displayed on uncovered pedestals. Artworks exhibited sans vitrines is almost unheard of at museums – here it allows viewers a closeup look.
– Artist Scott Fife, creator of TAM’s beloved “Leroy the Pup”, has been commissioned to create a permanent sculpture for the museum – see the maquette (3-D artist’s model) at the museum.
– Clint Eastwood is now a regular at TAM – the museum offers visitors an audio guide to the Haub collection in which he narrates six sections about Western art.
– More technology – Marie Watt has collected the stories behind the blankets in her installation (engraved with individual numbers so contributors can identify theirs by index), and created an app to listen to all 306 of them. Learn more at http://www.tacomaartmuseum.org/blanketstories.
– TAM’s learning classroom has moved downstairs, and an education outreach is underway. The museum recently hired Samantha Hightower Kelly as Director of Education. In the past two years, Kelly has been recognized as “Southeastern Region Art Museum Educator of the Year” by the National Art Education Association, “Alabama Art Museum Educator of the Year” by the Alabama Education Association, and among the “Top 40 Under 40” young professionals by Birmingham Business Journal.
– Asia Tail, the the 2014 Haub Fellow, is engaged in research on Native American history at the museum.
– TAM’s museum store has been expanded.
– The café has been refreshed and revamped.
– A signature bourbon and a new beer have been locally crafted to celebrate the TAM expansion.
The Haub Wing is the culmination of an astonishing 4-year journey for TAM. Tacoma’s art scene just keeps getting better. Stay tuned for developments.