With more than 2,000 separate pieces of art that fascinate tourists and residents alike, the Chihuly Bridge of Glass in downtown Tacoma needs maintenance that doesn’t come cheap.
This year, the city is looking at costs topping $50,000 for tasks such as cleaning the artwork, changing the lights and fixing broken glass panels.
“Just like anything, you build something and you have to take care of it,” Tacoma Arts Commissioner Amy McBride said. “It’s a major asset, so we want to make sure we’re keeping it in good condition.”
As the bridge turns 10 and expenses mount, the city is actively searching for ways to save money, such as installing more efficient lighting. But striking the right balance between art and economics requires the blessing of the Chihuly Studio.
Tiffany Moss, head of communications at the studio, said proper lighting is essential to the integrity of the glass. The studio places a heavy emphasis on illumination, which is why its designer must approve any changes.
“We want to take advantage of that property and light it correctly,” Moss said. “It’s important to get the lighting just right so the artwork sparkles and looks its best.”
The Bridge of Glass is a 500-foot pedestrian bridge that links the Museum of Glass with the Washington State History Museum. The bridge opened July 6, 2002, the same day as the museum, and features the work of acclaimed glass artist and Tacoma native Dale Chihuly.
It cost about $5 million to design and build the bridge with city, state and federal funds. The art was worth an estimated $12 million at the time it was installed and was gifted to the city.
With so many pieces of art available for public viewing at all times, maintenance is both a critical and costly component of the bridge.
Keeping it illuminated is one of the more expensive aspects of maintenance.
Each year, the city must replace any faulty lights inside the Venetian Wall – one of the focal points of the bridge. In the past few years, the process has cost from $2,000 to $8,000.
Every few years, including this year, the city must also “re-lamp” the Seaform Pavilion – the ceiling of the bridge which houses thousands of pieces of Chihuly’s art. McBride said the pavilion last had its lamps changed approximately four years ago for around $25,000, which is what the city expects to pay this time around.
She said the re-lamping process is expensive because of the difficulty accessing the bridge, the time it takes to complete the work and the price of the bulbs, up to $300 each.
“It takes time to do it right,” McBride said. “It’s art lighting; specialty lighting isn’t cheap.”
The Bridge of Glass must also be cleaned, which adds to the expense of maintainance.
The crystal towers – another main feature of the bridge, visible from Interstate 705 – are cleaned once a year at a cost of about $8,500. The city must rent a crane and scissor lift to access the towers from below.
The bridge’s three-times-a-week cleanings also contribute to the overall maintenance cost on the bridge, though it’s not paid by the city.
These routine cleanings consist of everything from wiping down the Venetian Wall to picking up litter. It is funded by the Foss Waterway Development Authority and costs approximately $1,500 a month, said Lianna Collinge, executive director of the Foss Waterway Owners Association.
As a cost-saving measure, McBride said the city is in discussions with Tacoma Power about retrofitting the bridge with LED lights as part of the utility’s bright rebates program.
“We’re exploring opportunities to make it as energy-efficient as possible,” said Peter Meyer, Tacoma Power commercial-industrial conservation manager. “It’s a custom project. It’s a little more complicated than lighting up an office building.”
Meyer said customers in the bright rebates program typically save from 40 percent to 60 percent on energy costs. Additionally, Tacoma Power will pay 17 cents per kilowatt-hour saved in the first year after installation, up to 70 percent of the project cost.
Moss, the Chihuly Studio spokeswoman, said that while most Chihuly works are displayed under halogen lights, the studio would be open to a more cost-effective option if its lighting designer signed off on the change.
“We want it to be presented the best way,” Moss said.
The city is also exploring ways to reduce the cost of repairing the Venetian Wall, McBride said. Currently, the city must rent a bucket truck and gain permission from the railroads and the state Department of Transportation before fixing a broken glass panel.
McBride said she hopes the city will be able to install a fall protection system, which would save money by allowing repairs on the wall to be made without the assistance of a bucket truck.
“As the bridge ages, we need to be able to fix it easier,” McBride said.
Before making repairs to the wall this year, the city will spend about $7,500 to pay an engineer to go inside and determine how to fix broken panels and identify possible cost-saving options.
Maintenance on the Bridge of Glass is not the only way the city invests in public art. Enacted in 2009, the Municipal Arts Program contributes one percent of construction costs from publicly funded capital projects to the development of artwork in the city.
The Municipal Art Collection, which includes the Bridge of Glass, is valued at more than $6 million, according to the Tacoma Capital Facilities Program.
“Public art creates a sense of place,” McBride said. “It helps the city have an identity.”