New museum celebrates glass

Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2002

TACOMA -- The bridge that links this blue-collar city's downtown with its spiffy new Museum of Glass and Commencement Bay is named for native son Dale Chihuly. But the opening-day exhibits mark a declaration of independence from glass generally and the pop prince of glass-blowing in particular.

While Chihuly's work is all over the city's waterfront, there is none actually inside the museum. And the opening-day exhibits go beyond glass to feature paintings and sculpture from Northwest School artists Morris Graves and Mark Tobey and musician John Cage.

The low-lying $48 million building with its silvery signature 90-foot cone -- the hot-shop where glass-blowers will both demonstrate the art and stock museum-shop shelves -- opened its doors to media representatives Tuesday. The public gets its first glimpse July 6.

The gleaming new facility faces across the Thea Foss Waterway, showcasing Mount Rainier, the harbor and the open sky from layers of plazas and pools linked with switchback ramps and stairways. It was built with private and government funds on a former Superfund site.

''Our pride comes not just from where we are, but from how far we've come,'' said Mayor Bill Baarsma.

The museum was designed by architect Arthur Erickson and executed by Nick Milkovich Architects, both Canadian. The cone was inspired by the sawmill woodburners that dotted the landscape at the height of the logging era, Erickson said.

The museum is not all about Chihuly, though he certainly helped inspire it. It's not even all about glass.

''The vision was opening doors and crossing boundaries ... artists who work in a variety of media,'' said museum director Josi Irene Callan, enticed here from California, where she spent 10 years transforming the San Jose Museum of Art.

''I think glass is perhaps where photography was 25 years ago -- not really very seriously taken as a medium. I think people have tended -- especially in the Northwest because it's so prevalent -- to think of glass being decorative, being pretty.''


Todd Priebe and Michael Parker, right, of Dale Chihuly Studios hoist a glacier-like piece of the Crystal Towers on Monday June 17, 2002, in Tacoma, Wash. The towers are two 40-foot-tall structures on the Bridge of Glass which will connect the new Museum of Glass to downtown Tacoma. More than 120 "crystals" made of Polyvitro, a type of polyurethane designed to withstand the elements, will be placed and bolted on stainless steel posts. The bridge and museum will open to the public July 6.

AP Photo/The News Tribune, Drew Perine

So the goal for the opening was ''two shows that would really knock people's socks off, that would also fit into both worlds.''

The result, from curator Neil Watson: a show of paintings and sculpture with roots in the region's Northwest School and an exhibit of glass sculpture by Czech masters Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova.

The exhibit of paintings, ''Sounds of the Inner Eye,'' underscores the museum's subtitle role, International Center for Contemporary Art, with works by painters Graves and Tobey, and Cage, better known for avant-garde music. Their paths crossed in Seattle in the 1930s, before local artists drew national attention with works marked by themes from nature, luminous light and echoes of Asia.

The strong, raw-edged sculptures in the Libensky-Brychtova exhibit, ''The Inner Light,'' explore form, color and optics. Most are executed in glass of one color, with variations in thickness creating the sense of more. The pieces are large -- some larger than viewers -- in strong hues. Some offer austere explorations of negative space within a form; some play with lenses; all celebrate light.

Their massive radiance is a far cry from the shiny brilliance of Chihuly, but Tacoma is not severing ties with its most celebrated native. The liquid swirls of his ''sea forms'' light the windows of the federal courthouse -- a restored historic railroad station -- and his collection of Pendleton blankets is on show at the Washington State History Museum next door to that. The Tacoma Art Museum -- now featuring his work -- plans a Chihuly exhibit when it moves into its new digs in July 2003.

And then there's the Chihuly Bridge of Glass -- a 500-foot footbridge over a busy Interstate 5 spur and train tracks that is already a local landmark with its twin towers of ice-blue rock-candy shapes; the Seaform Pavilion, with more than 1,500 pieces overhead; and a wall displaying dozens of jewel-colored works from the artist's Venetian series.

At the Museum of Glass, art surrounds the visitor, inside and out. The building grounds will remain open around the clock.

On the main terrace, Howard Ben Tre's ''Water Forest'' installation of bronze and glass pillars invites the visitor to settle into the center seat and watch the water in the pillars rise and fall with the tide.

The reflecting pools will feature installations changed annually. Now they reflect huge willow vessels, Patrick Dougherty's ''Call of the Wild''; carry scores of floating red glass apples, part of artist Mildred Howard's ''Blackbird in a Red Sky''; and mirror a Buster Simpson piece titled ''Incidence,'' with opalescent glass panels that march the length of the uppermost pool.

The museum also offers an adventurous educational program organized by Susan Warner, formerly of the Seattle Children's Museum. There will be science programs exploring the properties of glass and Object-Based Theater, a literacy and drama program for schools. This fall, a short story by British author A.S. Byatt -- ''Cold,'' from her book ''Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice,'' -- will be dramatized in the museum theater.

Callan said she hadn't planned to leave San Jose, but Museum of Glass backers won her over.

''How often do you get to build a new art museum from scratch?''

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