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Sunday, June 30, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Visual Arts

Glass houses: Tacoma's Museum of Glass is ready to open this week

Seattle Times art critic

This Saturday, on the bank of Tacoma's Thea Foss Waterway, the long-awaited Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art will open its doors with a show of paintings by Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and John Cage. With it will be "The Inner Light," an exhibit of glass sculpture by Czech artists Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová. Visitors to the museum will cross a flamboyant new Bridge of Glass decorated by Tacoma native son Dale Chihuly.

Next year, near the banks of the Thea Foss Waterway, the long-awaited new Tacoma Art Museum will open with "Northwest Mythology" a show of paintings by Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson. Also showing will be a major installation of glass sculptures by ... Dale Chihuly.

For two museums with apparently different purposes to end up with such similar opening lineups is odd, to say the least. The fact that they are sitting in such close proximity in a relatively small city, drawing on many of the same resources and aiming at the same audience makes it stranger still.

So what happened?

With a long history in the region, the Tacoma Art Museum is known for showing 19th- and 20th-century art, with a focus on the Northwest. The Museum of Glass, on the other hand, was conceived 10 years ago as a studio and showcase for the work of superstar glass artist Chihuly.

To the area's business leaders, all this development and excitement along the waterfront creates a rosy picture of a small city fighting its way back from an image blighted by an industrial history of air pollution and arsenic-tainted soil. The two new museums form the crown of a cultural center that stands in what was once a barren tideland, long polluted by industrial waste and bound up in treaty agreements with the Puyallup tribe. Now it's home to a renovated Union Station and the Washington State History Museum, with the University of Washington's Tacoma campus nearby.

But many in the arts community are wondering how the two museums ended up in a neck-and-neck rivalry for patronage and programming. Are they serving the best interests of the public? And how will they avoid the kind of competitive one-upmanship their opening exhibitions signal?

The answers to those questions, along with the underlying reasons for the apparent rivalry, lead through a thicket of politics, big personalities, piles of money and the whims of Tacoma's world-famous glass impresario.

An anchor of glass for downtown

Chihuly lives in Seattle, but he owns four buildings in Tacoma and keeps a staff of 24 working full-time at a warehouse there, crating and shipping glass. His glass sculptures are installed all around the city. Chihuly's mom, Viola, who just turned 95, still lives there in the house where he grew up.

In late summer 1992, Chihuly went to visit Phillip Phibbs at his Tacoma home to talk about a way to start a hotshop studio and glass center in the city where he grew up. Phibbs, who was just retiring from his post as president of the University of Puget Sound, had developed a reputation as an ace fund-raiser, and he liked what Chihuly had to say. "What we really should have is a museum of glass," Phibbs told him.

Phibbs did some research, then took his idea to the Executive Council for a Greater Tacoma, where he found an enthusiastic ally in Tacoma's premier businessman, George Russell. Russell, with his late wife, Jane, ran the investment-consulting and mutual-fund company Frank Russell. The Russells sold the multibillion-dollar firm in 1999. Russell believed the Chihuly museum would anchor a plan to develop the Thea Foss Waterway and be a great way to help revitalize downtown. "We had to bring business people together to see if we couldn't get Tacoma to stop turning its lights off at 5," he said.

Over the next 10 years, their plan for the Chihuly Museum of Glass would morph through several different names and missions, but right from the start there was discussion about what its relationship would be with the Tacoma Art Museum.

'The powers-that-be decided'

When Chase Rynd took over as director of TAM in 1993, talks were already under way to develop a new glass wing for the museum. "I'm not sure where it originated," Rynd said by phone from Tennessee, where he is now director at the Frist Gallery of Art in Nashville. "But that was the original plan from my tenure, to have a large glass component to the museum."

TAM already owned a permanent display of Chihuly's glass and still has the largest museum collection of his work, most donated by the artist.

One of Rynd's first assignments as director was to start fund-raising for a badly needed new facility for the museum, which had been housed, since 1972, in an outmoded and ill-equipped former bank building downtown. Rynd got the capital campaign under way almost immediately. At first there was much talk of the Chihuly Glass Center being a joint effort with TAM. "There were endless discussions," Rynd said. "The dialogue went on for months, years." Rynd wouldn't give specifics about why it didn't work out.

"The best I can say is that the powers-that-be decided it would be better to split off," Rynd said. "We were on track to do this as a single institution."

When that decision was made for the museums to go their separate ways, Rynd said it came with a promise that the glass museum would not raise money locally. "That was the commitment that was made: George Russell would raise money through his international contacts."

TAM also was assured that its focus on 19th- and 20th-century art and Northwest regionalism wouldn't be impacted.

Michael Sullivan, former manager of the city's cultural division, however, believes the glass museum was geared toward independence from the start. "The glass museum emerged pretty much fully developed," he said. "I think (the Russells) may have flirted with the idea of merging it, but I think they wanted a more singular expression. I think the glass museum had its own trajectory."

A bridge that goes nowhere

The quick rise and fall of a spectacular public-works/public-art project — the 12th Street Bridge — helps illustrate the influence Chihuly and his backers had on the shifting tectonics of Tacoma city planning. When TAM was looking at a downtown expansion site, Sullivan introduced a plan by a pair of brilliant Russian architects for a pedestrian bridge from the foot of 12th Street down to the shore of the Thea Foss Waterway, opening up the inaccessible downtown waterfront for public use.

Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin's model for the bridge, exhibited at Seattle's Henry Art Gallery in the mid-1990s, was a gorgeous thing, hearkening back to Tacoma's past as a railroad and lumber town. Beginning where 12th Street dead-ends downtown, it would carry pedestrians to one of the city's most stunning viewpoints, then lead them on a thrilling descent through a glass-enclosed tunnel to the waterfront below. Much of the funding for the bridge was in place, and Sullivan was confident the project was a go. The model and drawings were getting enthusiastic coverage by the Seattle press.

One thing the Russians' bridge didn't have, however, was Chihuly. And Chihuly was happy to hitch his name to another bridge project closer to the new Glass Museum. This bridge, several blocks from the other proposed site, would route visitors to the museum from the newly renovated Union Station. (Which, not coincidentally, was getting a flashy installation by Chihuly). The bridge would be called the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, designed by an architect and embellished with a permanent Chihuly installation.

Suddenly, the city dropped the Brodsky and Utkin bridge plan like a hot brick.

Chihuly said he always thought the Russian architects had a good design. "I was all for it. I think it would be great if they'd still do it," he said, although he did admit that some of the money for it was appropriated for his project. "I think it was only a million," he said.

The city ended up paying $3.7 million for the Arthur W. Andersson-designed Chihuly Bridge of Glass, some 30 percent over its original budget, according to a story in the Tacoma News Tribune. Chihuly says he got $3 million, paid for by the Museum of Glass, for creating the bridge's glass and plastic installations. He recently asked that it not be named after him, but the city overruled him.

One last try

In 1999, Rynd left Tacoma Art Museum for his new job in Nashville. TAM's widely respected head curator, Barbara Johns, stepped up as acting director while the board began a nationwide search for Rynd's replacement. During that time, with TAM still trying to secure a site for its new building, talks resumed to determine whether TAM and the Museum of Glass could somehow join forces. That meant anything "from sharing a receptionist to a full merger," Johns said.

TAM had selected Antoine Predock as its project architect, and the Museum of Glass was working with Arthur Erickson, who had also designed George Russell's Tacoma home.

"My wife funded a special study about four years ago to see how these institutions could blend or merge," said Russell, board chair at the Museum of Glass. But after extensive talks, the two sets of trustees still couldn't see eye to eye. "We had a new board, and the Tacoma Art Museum is a hundred years old. The two boards couldn't be on the same page."

Within a half-year, both boards selected new directors to lead them through the final phases of their capitol campaigns and polish the image of their new institutions.

That's when the competition began.

Tomorrow in Northwest Life: How two museums ended up with the same artists, how they're trying to move forward, and how Dale Chihuly got what he wanted.

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