It doesn’t look any different, but Dale Chihuly’s glass art inside Union Station in downtown Tacoma is officially permanent — and now belongs to the people of the United States.
At an invitation-only ceremony Wednesday, the Tacoma-born international glass artist and his wife, Leslie, formally donated the five large artworks inside the historic rotunda to the federal government, which leases the building for a courthouse.
When the lease expires in 2022, the General Services Administration will buy the building from the city of Tacoma, and keep the art there in perpetuity as part of the National Fine Arts Collection.
“Over the years people have come to love it, to want it preserved,” Leslie Jackson Chihuly, president and CEO of Chihuly Studio, said at the ceremony that included local political and arts dignitaries. “We feel the same way. … Art should be forever, for everyone, accessible, part of our national heritage.”
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“It’s a great gift,” said Lisa Pearson, acting commissioner for the GSA’s Northwest/Arctic region. “This will allow the GSA to maintain and preserve the art for future generations.”
Chihuly, 75, took a small part in the ceremony, briefly dedicating the art to his family.
The works include a row of orange-red glass “Water Reeds” in the upper Pacific Avenue window, a giant circle of colorful, tangled flower stems (“Lackawanna Ikebana”) in the upper south mezzanine and the bright orange “Monarch Window” flowers backlit against the east window.
The semi-circular “Basket Drawing Wall” of paintings is on the north side with the lemon, aqua and vermillion “End of the Day” chandelier hanging from the center of the dome.
Built in 1910 by Grand Central Station architects Reed and Stern, the building was used as a rail station until 1984, when it fell into disrepair. Saved from demolition, the building was leased by the GSA in 1987 and underwent extensive restoration.
In the early 1990s, Chihuly, who grew up in Tacoma in the 1940s and ’50s before going on to achieve international success as a glass artist, got the idea to put art in the rotunda.
“Once I decided to do it, the hard part was getting permission,” he said.
In the end, Chihuly Studios subleased the rotunda from the GSA for $1 a year, said studio CLO Michael Tobiason. Until now the studio has maintained the work, dusting off the glass once a year.
The decision to gift it permanently to the people of America wasn’t because of practicalities, Leslie Jackson Chihuly said.
“We’ve been thinking about the legacy piece,” she said. “It seemed like the right time to make the gift. People love the work so much.”
“It belongs here, it was meant for here,” said Deborah Scearce, a GSA employee who works in the building. “I just love it.”
Dale Chihuly has maintained ties to Tacoma, co-founding the youth glassblowing initiative Hilltop Artists and supporting the Museum of Glass, as well as donating work to Tacoma Art Museum.
His storage, packing and shipping department recently moved from several downtown warehouses into a facility near the Port of Tacoma.
More of his art can be seen downtown on the Bridge of Glass, inside the University of Washington Tacoma’s library and at nearby Swiss tavern.
“Dale Chihuly has really helped make Tacoma a center for the arts,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said during the ceremony. “We’re proud to say Dale Chihuly is a citizen of Tacoma.”
Noting that artists have the ability to change an environment, Mike Sweney, chairman of the Washington State Arts Commission, added, “The arts were at the forefront of (Tacoma’s renaissance).
“This is exactly the right art for this building, and for this city.”