Tacoma's new museum bridges the city's past and its future.
Ask a Northwesterner where to find the International Center for Contemporary Art and you may get the bemused grin of someone waiting for a punch line. Then mention Tacoma, Wash., and see what reaction you get. C'mon, Tacoma? The old seaport-turned-industrial-center? The longtime timber town whose pulp mill singlehandedly established the city's reputation through . . . smell?
No doubt you'll hear more than an earful about the infamous Tacoma Aroma. What you ought to get instead are directions. This summer, corks flew—carefully—to celebrate the opening of the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art, along Tacoma's Thea Foss Waterway. Once a gritty industrial district, this stretch of seaport is now flanked by a pedestrian esplanade running past a condo development and up a flight of stairs to the glittering new museum.
A dramatic cone of stainless steel, concrete, and translucent glass rises 90 skewed feet into the sky, paying architectural homage to the sawmills of Tacoma's past.
But a visitor who gazes up at the modernist sentinel from the sleek waterside platform is really catching a glimpse of Tacoma's future.
From its inception, the Museum of Glass was charged with two missions: to lead the nascent cultural revitalization of Tacoma and to honor its famous native son, internationally venerated glass artist Dale Chihuly. In large part because of Chihuly, who in 1971 cofounded the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Wash., the Northwest is today one of the world centers for glass art. Works by this son of a Tacoma butcher-turned-union-organizer have been installed throughout the world—even suspended over Venice. And the prolific and peripatetic artist himself, with his distinctive eye patch and colorful personality, has become the public face for his medium.
"There are a lot of things that attract people to this region," Chihuly says. "For me, one of the attractions is the rain. I find the rain very creative."
The museum's board of trustees hired architect Arthur Erickson, from Vancouver, B.C., and Josi Callan, former director of the San Jose Museum
of Art, as designer and director, respectively. As the project began to take shape, glass receded as the museum's raison d'être. Artists often rankle over being pigeonholed into one medium, especially glass, which for years was marginalized as a craft.
In other words, don't come to this museum looking for nifty displays of pretty vases. In the many spaces that open off the vaulted entry—imagine a tentacled octopus, not unlike one of Chihuly's fluid forms—the 13,000-square-foot gallery encourages conversations between media as a matter of course. Witness Some Assembly Required, a current exhibition in which 11 artisans, including Richard Marquis, Flora Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick, have created large-scale sculptures composed of smaller, individual pieces of glass art.
Back in the octopus, visitors can choose from any number of other things to see and, more significantly, to do. That windowed room in the back is the Education Studio, where visual and performing artists lead exhibit-specific activities to help museumgoers themselves grapple with the muse. Over there is the theater, a deep vermilion room that hosts lectures, films, and art-inspired stage pieces.
Across the way is what sets the Museum of Glass above the ordinary. (Literally: It's housed inside that towering steel-clad cone.) The Hot Shop Amphitheater is home to a working glass studio where spectators can watch the mysterious alchemy of glassmaking take place. Call it choreography for construction workers: A team of brawny, muscle-shirted men and women—looking more like stevedores than artists—focus intensely on that short period when their medium is still malleable. Maybe the new cultural Tacoma isn't so different from the old industrial Tacoma after all.
Outside, the platforms facing Thea Foss Waterway constitute part of the museum. There, beneath the gaze of mighty Mount Rainier, glass installations set on different levels compete with the mountain's majesty. Rimless reflecting pools appear to merge with the waterway, establishing a glassy communion between art and nature.
Ascend the staircase as it winds around the cone and you'll arrive on the roof, facing the 500-foot-long Chihuly Bridge of Glass. This marvel is fitted with grandly illuminated works of art, including the Crystal Towers, a pair of poles smack in the middle of the bridge and topped with glasslike shards that look as if they were wrenched from the blue heart of a glacier.
The Bridge of Glass, above the freeway, also serves as a link to the city's emerging crop of cultural and regional attractions—the Washington State
History Museum, the Tacoma branch of the University of Washington, and the Tacoma Art Museum's new home. Chihuly's Crystal Towers now stands as one of the primary landmarks in town. It's hard to imagine a more fitting icon for a portal into the new Tacoma.
For more information on the Museum of Glass, call (253) 396-1768 or visit www.museumofglass.org .
Photography by Lara Swimmer
This article was first published in November 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.