To future historians writing about Tacoma, let the record show: When others were giving up on downtown and moving out, the Tacoma Art Museum not only stayed, it dug in. And in doing so, it became a leading force in the city’s arts-based renaissance.
The museum, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary with exhibits by Norman Rockwell (ending May 30) and Dale Chihuly (beginning Saturday), has been a downtown fixture since 1958. That’s when it moved from Jones Hall (at what is now the University of Puget Sound) into rented storefront space at 742 Broadway.
From 1963 to 1971, the museum was lodged in “The Old Jailhouse” at 621 Pacific Ave. It took a giant step forward in its development in 1971 by moving into larger digs in the former National Bank of Washington building at 1123 Pacific.
At a time when other old buildings were being torn down, TAM decided to give one a brand new use – a practice that would become a downtown Tacoma trademark in years to come.
But in the 1990s, TAM’s growing reputation meant it was also outgrowing its location. Its board took the courageous – and highly ambitious – step of launching a $25 million capital campaign to build a museum. And not just any museum: one specifically designed to show art to its best advantage and with respect for its urban and natural vistas. Antoine Predock, an architect with international pedigree, was hired. In May 2003, the spectacular new museum opened at 1701 Pacific.
Now TAM anchors the northern end of a museum triumvirate, with the Museum of Glass to the east and the Washington State History Museum to the south – all within easy walking distance of each other. A nearby LINK light rail stop in front of the Union Station federal courthouse and the University of Washington Tacoma makes it easy for visitors to park off site and ride the free streetcar in.
TAM has presented scores of impressive shows over the years – many focused on its core mission of showcasing Northwest art. And it’s not afraid to challenge its audience: Next year it plans to bring in the controversial “Hide/Seek” exhibit of gay and lesbian portraiture – a move that has already gotten the email coming in, both pro and con.
But TAM is about more than exhibits. It has an important education component, drawing students and teachers from all over the Puget Sound region. Its Art Resource Center offers valuable research opportunities, and visitors can even try their hand at making art in the Open Art Studio.
It’s an active community player, too. It puts on six free community festivals each year that bring in visitors who might otherwise not come to an art museum. And it offers free admission every Third Thursday.
Like most nonprofits and arts organizations, TAM has felt the recession, in lower attendance and memberships as well as reduced donations and grants. But it’s hanging in there, and contributions and memberships are picking up. It even ended 2010 in the black.
TAM’s leaders haven’t let the economy dampen their ambition. They’re planning a $17 million capital campaign to fund a $3 million redesign of the entry plaza as well as an increase of TAM’s art acquisition endowment. Anyone who thought TAM would rest on its laurels after 75 years would be wrong; it’s already planning for its next 75.
Congratulations and thanks to all those art lovers – past and present – who have worked so hard over the years to bring beauty, enlightenment and community to the Sound Sound.