Special Reports

Splendor in the glass

Larry Stemp is a fourth-generation Tacoman who has waited his whole life for his hometown to come out of its coma. "It finally happened," the 53-year-old chiropractor said, sitting in a crowd on the Chihuly Bridge of Glass Saturday afternoon, the opening day of the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art.

An estimated 3,000 people attended between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., with another rush of visitors expected when Dale Chihuly and his team demonstrated glassblowing at 6 p.m. The museum hopes for 5,000 to 10,000 visitors this weekend.

The museum will be open from noon to 5 today. Chihuly and company will blow glass from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Opening day didn't start out mobbed. At 10:30 a.m., Joan Bunnell, 48, of Tacoma, longed for the crowds and faraway parking she expected.

"It's sad because it's so fantastic," she said.

Andrew Cylkowski, 45, of Buckley, said he liked the museum.

"But how much of a draw it's going to be, I don't know," he said.

The museum has gathered $42 million of its $48 million capital campaign. With an annual budget around $5 million, the museum is the largest arts nonprofit in Tacoma.

Its potential popularity was easier to visualize by noon, when the wait to get inside lengthened to 45 minutes. Things stayed that way through the early afternoon, and no one seemed to mind, thanks to sunny weather.

Once inside, visitors entered another line: the one into the hot shop, which was packed all day.

"You get into (the glassblowing) and think, 'Wow, they can make something out of nothing,'" said Sam August, 14, from Sacramento, Calif., who was visiting relatives in Tacoma.

The galleries weren't packed, except where Gregory Barsamian's strobe-lit sculpture "Die Falle" seduced a constant crowd in a dark room.

"This is the best thing," said Robert Deluna, 59, of Tacoma. "This and what I call the 'fancy vases'" - Chihuly's 109-sculpture "Venetian Wall" on the bridge.

Two older women, one from Puyallup and the other visiting from California, sat on a bench, exasperated by the abstract sculptures and drawings by Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova.

"The hot shop was too hot, and I was expecting to see more glass like what's on the bridge," one said.

Nearby, Seattle basket maker Marilyn Moore, 57, was admiring the stuff. "It's amazing," she said.

Anticipating skepticism, the museum's education department planted actors on the exhibition tour. "I don't like it," one actor said, interrupting the tour guide. Another actor disagreed, and the two argued. The real visitors seemed shocked, then amused.

A play in the museum's theater dramatizing works by Mark Tobey, John Cage and Morris Graves impressed Dan Dubeau, 36, of Auburn.

"Everything is so diverse," he said. "I came here expecting only glass."

The only complaint from Bill and Tina James of Renton was the $8 admission.

"Five dollars is a good price for the people of Tacoma," Bill said.

But so much of the experience is free, said Tacoman Chris Thompson, 41. The bridge and outdoor museum plazas hold eight separate art installations that are open all hours.

"This is truly for the people," Thompson said. His 8-year-old daughter Megan was busy choosing her favorite Chihuly Venetian, a common pastime on the bridge.

Howard Ben Tré's "Water Forest" in front of the museum became a sprinkler system for kids tired of painting in the museum's studio.

Dance students from the Tacoma School for the Arts performed a send-up of synchronized swimming in one of the museum's shallow reflecting pools.

Hot sellers at the museum store were jewelry and kids' stuff. At the cafe, where lunches run from $6.25 to $9.50, customers praised the food, especially the Normandy salad, a cornucopia of delicacies, such as "port plumped cranberries" and "piquant capers."

But the greatest praise was reserved for the access to the waterfront that the museum and adjoining esplanade provide. Mount Rainier was out, and folks snapped pictures and walked their dogs.

The activity even extended over the bridge to Pacific Avenue, where restaurants reported twice as much business as usual.

The museum sold 200 memberships Saturday, bringing the total up to 2,600, a museum spokeswoman said. Tacoma Art Museum has 1,800.

"We depend on you to tell thousands and thousands of people to come back," board president George Russell told a crowd.

The museum hopes for 165,000 visitors its first year.

One was Kevin Flick, 32, who has lived in Seattle for five years. This was his second trip to Tacoma - the first was for a monster truck show.

He said he'll recommend the museum to friends.

"I'll just tell them the art museum was really good," he said. "It doesn't really matter where it is."

Jen Graves: 253-597-8568