Special Reports

Museum security almost bulletproof

Don't even think about it.

Video cameras, foot patrols and a security sandwich of safety glass and teflon guard the Chihuly Bridge of Glass and the art outside the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art.

The 109 sculptures in the bridge's "Venetian Wall" are attached with the tape that holds the tiles on the space shuttle. The "Crystal Towers" are made of thick plastic that a bullet can't shatter.

And Patrick Dougherty's giant stick sculpture outside the Museum of Glass will be monitored, alarmed and guarded 24 hours a day - but there will be a hose next to it just in case.

Few visitors to the bridge - opening with the museum at 10 a.m. Saturday - will miss the implicit dare in thousands of glass artworks, worth an estimated $12 million, perched over a highway.

"Anything placed on that footbridge has 'shoot me' stamped all over it," said Tim Bennecker of Tacoma, who became concerned when driving under the bridge on I-705 recently.

Its fragility "makes the bridge inspiring," said Jessica Cusick, chairwoman of the Americans for the Arts' Public Art Network Council.

"It's a more brave and symbolic gesture of belief in downtown" than a monument in bronze or stone would be, she said. The five sculptures outside the museum - mostly made of glass and wood - are also brave, then. Both the sculpture garden and the bridge are open all hours.

But serious vandalism to public art is rare, Cusick said. She sees about two cases a year around the country.

The problem is, last year one of those cases was in Tacoma - a man used a crowbar to rip masks from building walls in the theater district in November.

Last month, a painting was stolen from outside the new Tacoma Art Museum under construction on Pacific Avenue.

But glass artist Dale Chihuly's team of designers and builders, museum leaders, neighborhood business owners and police intend to stave off destruction along the newly attractive Thea Foss Waterway.

At all times, a museum security guard will mind four screens with multiple views of the site. An outdoor guard will patrol the area, which is lit at night. Alarms on the sculptures sense and react to movement.

Meanwhile, video cameras on the city-owned bridge feed to the city's Web site for Tacoma police to monitor in sets inside their patrol cars, said city economic development marketer Becky Japhet.

A guard hired by the Foss Waterway Owners Association will patrol the esplanade and the bridge.

With so many security forces, "coordination is key," said Don Meyer, head of the Foss Waterway Public Development Authority.

"If there's a gap, it'll be fixed," he said.

The overpass itself, with lights under benches and mesh railings, was designed to make hiding difficult, Japhet said.

Chihuly's team spent months rigging and testing the bridge's art installations in a Seattle studio. There is no such thing as vandalism-proof glass, but a vandal with even a sledgehammer would need several minutes to get through the safety glass protecting the "Venetian Wall" and "Seaform Pavilion" sculptures, said project manager Ryan Smith.

In the worst-case scenario, Chihuly has offered to donate a reserve of pieces to the city in case of damage and says if there is a massive earthquake, "we'll rebuild it."

The museum's insured artworks are more exposed. One is, literally, a glass house.

As in the Bible, bad behavior will earn ejection from the Edenic sculpture garden on the museum's plazas.

"If we get to the point where the art can be damaged, we will indeed do a series of gates that will shut off the museum at night," said director Josi Callan.

People are already dumping cigarette butts and throwing coins into the reflecting pools. Ramps beckon skateboarders, who would chip the concrete.

"If somebody damages this building, it hurts everybody," Callan said.

Security on the bridge can also be tightened, Japhet said.

The city will decide what is needed after the first rush of people is over and a regular flow is established.

"Security is as much a function of how frequently a place is used as anything else," said Cusick of Americans for the Arts.

Jen Graves: 253-597-8568