In rainy weather more Northwest than West, fringed skirts and cowboy boots were the order of the day Thursday as Tacoma Art Museum broke ground on a $15.5 million expansion and renovation that will house its new Western American art collection and double the museum’s gallery space.
German billionaire art collectors Erivan and Helga Haub, who are donating 280 works of art and $20 million in funding for the project, attended with their son Christian and daughter-in-law Liliane, Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Derek Kilmer, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and other elected officials for the symbolic ground-breaking — a sidewalk unveiling of large-scale replicas from the Haubs’ donated art. Actual construction will begin late October, with the addition set to open in fall 2014.
“This is a great economic investment in Tacoma,” Inslee said at the ceremony, which was opened with a blessing from the Puyallup Canoe Family led by Connie McCloud and continued with a cowgirl band and dummy steer roping. “It means 135 construction jobs. It means 10 permanent positions at the museum. It means 20 percent more projected visitors making investments right here in the state of Washington.”
The expansion, led by Olson Kundig Architects, includes a 16,000-square-foot wing facing Pacific Avenue, with four galleries displaying about 150 pieces from the Haub collection, including works by Frederic Remington and Thomas Moran. The lobby, intersecting the current building and new wing, will be expanded, and a tall awning will face the street and provide shelter from the weather. A new entrance will be built for the parking lot below.
Much of the expansion’s $15.5 million budget is coming from the Haubs’ $20 million donation, which is also funding an endowment to cover maintenance and education costs. A Washington state Building for the Arts grant contributed $2 million; the city of Tacoma is providing $400,000; the National Endowment for the Humanities contributed $150,000; plus there have been private donations. The museum still needs to raise $500,000 in a public campaign.
For the Haub family, the new wing is personal.
“I’m so proud and so happy to bring something that is so near and dear to our heart back to Tacoma,” said Christian Haub, who is working with his wife and the museum on the project. Based on the East Coast, he now co-runs the family’s European supermarket conglomerate, Tengelmann Group.
With a rodeo buckle glinting under his dark suit, Christian Haub explained why this German family of businessmen is giving Western artwork to a museum in Tacoma. As a young man learning how Americans ran their supermarkets, Erivan Haub made friends with a couple from Fox Island while skiing in Idaho. While visiting them a year later, he fell in love with the beauty of Puget Sound. He returned on his honeymoon with Helga, and eventually bought a waterfront home in Gig Harbor. His three sons, Karl-Erivan, Georg and Christian, were all born at Tacoma General Hospital, and spent their summers learning to fish and sail here. Karl-Erivan worked for a while at Tacoma’s Brown & Haley candy company.
“I have fond memories of spending my childhood here,” said Christian Haub.
Erivan Haub, who was named the world’s third-richest man by Forbes in the 1990s and whose net worth is now estimated by Forbes as $4.9 billion, also contributed to Tacoma’s renaissance, financially supporting the Union Station restoration and the creation of the Museum of Glass and the University of Washington Tacoma campus.
In the 1980s, the Haubs began pursuing another American love — the West. They began buying Western art and bought a ranch in Wyoming where much of the collection now resides.
“Every time we would come to the ranch, there would be another painting,” said Liliane Haub, who has a background in art history. “It was like a museum.”
When the family began to discuss future plans for the collection, they agreed it had to reside somewhere they had ties to. Tacoma attorney John Barline, a family friend, adviser and former museum trustee, suggested the Tacoma Art Museum. When they discovered that museum director Stephanie Stebich was not only German-born and fluent in German, but even came from the same town as the Haubs, the decision was made.
“As I saw the collection, I (was) staggered by its size and quality,” Stebich said at a press conference prior to Thursday’s ceremony. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people in the museum field like myself to bring this kind of art to the community.”
While two of the works from the collection — Henry Inman’s “Chief of the Foxes” and Catharine Critcher’s “Portrait of Star Road” — are on view now in the museum’s current portraiture show, the rest of the 280 works are still being chosen by the Haubs and TAM’s new Western art curator, Laura Fry. Two will probably be the 8-foot-high replicas unveiled at the groundbreaking: Charles Bird King’s “Wanata (The Charger), Grand Chief of the Sioux” and Thomas Moran’s “Green River, Wyoming.” Other artists in the collection include George Catlin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Kevin Red Star and Bill Schenck.
“It’s really a treasure trove,” Fry said. “It’s a stunning collection.”
And the fact that Western art is often sneered at as a poor cousin to more high-brow art? The Haubs just see that as an opportunity to educate.
“The East Coast doesn’t approve of Western art as much,” said Liliane Haub at a panel discussion following the groundbreaking. “(But) we believe Western art shows the history of the West. We’ve always been proud of it.”
“We want to expose it to as many people as possible,” added Christian Haub.
At the panel discussion, Stebich and Fry did not elaborate on how Western art would dovetail into the museum’s Northwest focus. But Stebich emphasized that, as the home of the largest such collection in the Northwest and one of the largest in the world, the Haub wing would give Tacoma Art Museum an edge over even the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
“I promise you that the new wing will be glorious,” she said.Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568