Beginning next week, downtown Tacoma’s four big museums are extending their hours and adding programs that reflect a growing collaborative spirit.
“Thursday Night at the Museums” has the four museums — the Washington State History Museum, the Museum of Glass, the Tacoma Art Museum and LeMay-America’s Car Museum — staying open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays through June.
The museums also will offer special program on some of those nights. Third Thursday will continue to be free except at America’s Car Museum.
Holders of EBT cards will pay only $1 admission to each museum, with the exception of LeMay-America’s Car Museum. In March, the Tacoma Museum Pass will add the car museum to the three museums it already covers.
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Though it doesn’t participate in the EBT program, America’s Car Museum has several programs to reach low-income audiences, said Ashley Bice, its marketing and communications manager.
The museum annually donates 4,800 admission tickets to United Way of Pierce County and 2,000 tickets to Puget Sound schools, she noted.
The new programs linking the museums are the results of years of building relationships and changes in leadership, said Jennifer Kilmer, executive director of the state history museum.
For most of their existence, Tacoma’s major museums were connected to each other by little more than sidewalks. And even some of those had barriers.
Kilmer’s predecessor, David Nicandri, famously refused to remove a wrought iron fence that blocked direct access from the Museum of Glass and the Chihuly Bridge of Glass to Pacific Avenue.
In 2006, the history museum began construction of a wall in its place until the city issued a stop-work order. (The fence came down in 2012.)
Relations among the museums have changed over the years.
“When I came in there were some fledgling efforts at collaboration,” said Kilmer, who became director in November 2011. “Believe it or not, it’s really hard to collaborate.”
Each museum has different goals, serves overlapping but different visitors and has its exhibit schedule planned out two to three years, she said.
The history, glass and art museums began offering the Tacoma Museum Pass last year. Next month it will go to $45, which represents a 20 to 25 percent discount on admission rates.
The seven-day museum pass is marketed to regional visitors.
“It’s sold online,” Kilmer said. “It’s geared toward someone in Portland who is surfing the Web and says, ‘I think we want to have a Tacoma weekend, but I’m not sure’ and then they see the pass and that does it.”
“People ask for these things,” said Stephanie Stebich, director of the Tacoma Art Museum. “We do it as much for the out-of-town visitor as much as we do for the in-town visitor who hasn’t experienced these museums yet.”
The pass might seem easy to accomplish, but it’s not.
Each museum has its own admission fees as well as differing economic models and audiences.
The Tacoma Children’s Museum has a pay-as-you-will admission. America’s Car Museum, Tacoma’s most expensive museum, charges $16 for adults. The Tacoma Art Museum charges $14 for adults.
“We are fortunate to have a long history in Tacoma and have a substantial endowment,” Stebich said.
Seattle and its ever growing population is a nearby market for Tacoma’s museums, but it’s not the primary focus of marketing efforts, Kilmer said.
“As a district,” she said, “we’re more likely to pull people from Portland, from Kitsap County, from Olympia, simply because there is that Seattle mindset of ‘if it’s more than 20 minutes away, I’m not going there.’”
For Stebich, Seattle and Portland offer both competition and opportunities.
On Saturday, the Tacoma Art Museum will open a show featuring the work of iconic Southwest artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Stebich expects it to draw visitors from across the nation. The touring show could have gone to the Seattle or Portland art museums.
“We are both collegial and compete for audiences,” Stebich said of her out-of-town rivals.
There’s also the Pierce County market, which the Thursday night program is geared toward.
“There are so many people that don’t think to come to these institutions or don’t know we are here,” Kilmer said.
The history museum’s mission and exhibits are statewide, but some of the programming should reflect its location, Kilmer said.
“The fact is we’re in Tacoma,” she said. “We need to be a respected statewide institution and a beloved community resource.”
A concentrated Museum District didn’t begin to take shape in Tacoma until the history museum, founded in 1891, moved from its old location north of Stadium High School to its prominent site on Pacific Avenue in 1996.
In 2002, the Museum of Glass opened on the Foss Waterway. In 2003, the Tacoma Art Museum, founded in 1935, moved south on Pacific Avenue to its present location just north of the history museum and across from the glass museum.
America’s Car Museum opened next to the Tacoma Dome in 2012. The Childrens Museum moved to its location on Pacific Avenue in 2012. North of the glass museum on Dock Street is a newly expanded Foss Waterway Seaport museum.
“I dare you to find a community the size of Tacoma with a (comparable) density in cultural organizations,” Kilmer said. “You can walk or take the light rail. And then you can go two blocks up and go to a show at the Broadway Center.”
Stebich said a visitor would have to go to Basel, Switzerland, or Mexico City to find a similar concentration of museums.
Kilmer is president of the Pierce County Arts and Culture Coalition, which promotes the common interests of arts and cultural institutions.
When she joined, the once informal group had five members. Now it covers all of Piece County and includes the heads of the county’s arts, heritage and other cultural institutions.
“A turning point for that group was when we said we need to be Pierce Countywide and not just Tacoma,” Kilmer said.
The institutions aren’t competitors, said Kim Ketchum, the history museum’s marketing director.
“We each have our own niche,” said Ketchum, who heads Market the Arts Task Force, which is made up marketing and communication heads of local attractions.
Currently, the group is working on efforts aimed at visitors to this summer’s U.S. Open in University Place.
Collaborations can be large and small.
The Foss Waterway Seaport had a display at the history museum’s community gallery during the seaport’s closed season in 2014. The big Tacoma museums use a smartphone app, STQRY, to add virtual content.
Smaller institutions, such as the Job Carr Museum in Tacoma’s Old Town, have been able to partner with other museums to add their own content.