In 1989, when the animated television series “The Simpsons” first aired, folks might’ve had a hard time believing the back-talking, bug-eyed, “Aye Caramba!”-spouting Bart Simpson would one day share museum space with the works of Renoir and Chihuly.
But here we are 30 years later, and the Tacoma Art Museum is displaying drawings from the longest-running scripted series in television history. And, yes, TAM is calling it art.
From now until Oct. 27, the downtown museum is showcasing “Bart at TAM: Animating America’s favorite family,” a never-before-seen Simpsons exhibit made possible by the generosity of Colorado Springs art collector Bill Heeter.
We don’t pretend to be art critics, but even we can see the mustard-hued cartoon family might pale in comparison to other fine works TAM has featured.
And as much as we love Marge Simpson with her Bride-of-Frankenstein blue hair, she’s no Mona Lisa. So why is TAM hanging pictures of her on the walls?
True, the show’s creator Matt Groening has Pacific Northwest ties; he’s one of the Evergreen State College’s most famous alums. But even that connection doesn’t explain why a major West Coast museum took on a pop-culture phenomenon.
The answer can be found in TAM’s vision statement, specifically the part where it pledges to be “a dynamic museum that engages, inspires, and builds community through art.”
By hosting “The Simpsons” exhibit, TAM is staying true to its promise of engaging the community. And what’s more dynamic than a generation-spanning show known for sharp writing and distinct voices in each 26-minute episode?
Oil paintings of rotting fruit or abstract sculptures resembling industrial waste get tiresome. Sometimes, people want to go to a museum to connect with a familiar story; sometimes, people just want to laugh.
By hosting Homer and the rest of the Springfield gang, TAM is showing the region what a civic-minded museum looks like. They’ve knocked down the wall that once separated fine art from pop art. The overriding message is that art belongs to everyone, not just the wine-and-cheese crowd.
Reject any thought that says “Bart at the TAM” is a cheap attempt to attract new patrons. TAM’s executive director David Setford isn’t waving his arms and shouting in his crisp English accent: “Hey, kids, look over here. We have cah-toons!”
Humor is fundamental to the human experience, and i’s about time a museum took silliness seriously. For three decades, “The Simpsons” has brilliantly spoofed American life, and by tackling difficult topics like race, religion, sexuality and politics, the show has served as a searing indictment of our times.
Even if you’re not a fan — not everyone has an appetite for the snarky and satirical — this exhibit has plenty to say about the science of animation and the magic of humor.
And don’t think you can recreate the wonder of this exhibit by staying home and scrolling through digital archives from the series readily available online.
The 150 hand-drawn animation cels collected from the show’s first 13 years are the last of an era. Since then, the fast-streaming animation has been computer-generated.
Besides, you won’t want to miss the atmosphere TAM created. It used colors as zany as the Simpsons themselves. And we promise the face-to-face contact with Bart and the rest of the family is worth the trek.
“Bart at the TAM” is art at its finest.