Editorials

TAM at 80: Show off big gifts and stay relevant

From the editorial board

The nearly complete Haub wing of the Tacoma Art Museum is shown in September 2014 amid the architectural tableau of downtown Tacoma, including the Museum of Glass hot shop cone in the background. TAM will grow again in the next few years to display its new Benaroya family gift of art pieces.
The nearly complete Haub wing of the Tacoma Art Museum is shown in September 2014 amid the architectural tableau of downtown Tacoma, including the Museum of Glass hot shop cone in the background. TAM will grow again in the next few years to display its new Benaroya family gift of art pieces. Staff file, 2014

As birthday gifts go, the Tacoma Art Museum can’t do better than what it recently unwrapped from Becky Benaroya, the widow of Seattle-area real estate magnate Jack Benaroya.

The couple pledged the museum 225 pieces of studio glass and other art, plus a $14 million contribution that will preserve the collection and build gallery space to display it.

The Benaroya gift runs a close second to that of German billionaire art collectors Erivan and Helga Haub, who donated 295 Western art works and $20 million in 2013.

Together, the contributions have propelled TAM’s rising profile as a caretaker of Northwest art, leading to its growing footprint on downtown Tacoma’s museum row.

Happy 80th birthday, indeed.

TAM is doing its part to keep regional collections intact, an important role at a time when Executive Director Stephanie Stebich says fine art institutions are witnessing a “generational shift of wealth.”

But even as the museum enters its octogenarian phase and enjoys the largesse of benefactors in their 80s and 90s, its leaders must do the hard work of staying fresh and relevant. They must make new friends, strengthen partnerships and engage with neighbors outside their elegant Antoine Predock-designed building.

Tacoma has much to gain if TAM were to focus on two areas. Working more closely with the nearby Museum of Glass is one. Bringing more diversity to the museum – a broader tapestry of age, race, ethnicity and historically neglected points of view – is the second.

Thankfully, TAM leaders are already striving to improve in both areas.

Stebich told The News Tribune editorial board last week that she’d like to deepen the relationship between TAM and the Museum of Glass. For many of its 14 years, MOG has been constrained by leadership turnover, red ink, a small endowment and confusion from visitors who wrongly assume they can go there to see the oeuvre of Tacoma-born glass superstar Dale Chihuly.

TAM sometimes steals the spotlight with its Chihuly exhibitions and permanent displays, including 150 glass items coming from the Benaroyas.

What makes MOG stand out are its excellent education programs and one-of-a-kind hot shop. Stebich envisions collaborations between the two museums such as exhibitions, an artist-in-residence program and curatorial gatherings. They already feed off each other through the city’s museum pass program.

For Tacoma to truly become the West Coast epicenter of studio glass art, TAM and MOG must bring out the best in each other.

On the diversity front, TAM found itself under scrutiny in December when local activists protested the dearth of black artists and faces in the traveling “Art AIDS America” show. Museum officials later acknowledged not fully understanding how hard blacks have been hit by the AIDS epidemic.

Similar criticism has fallen on the Haub collection, which largely depicts the West through a Euro-American rather than Native American perspective.

Stebich says she and others in the U.S. museum world are “all aware of the work that needs to be done in diversifying” – everything from show bookings and art acquisitions, to the recruitment of staff, volunteers and board members.

The museum isn’t satisfied – nor should it be – with occasional exhibits such as “30 Americans,” a showcase of black artists making its West Coast premiere at TAM next fall. Inclusiveness needs to be part of the museum’s DNA.

TAM’s mission is to tell the Northwest story by connecting people through art. It is already doing commendable work promoting gender equity.

Stebich says “there’s a richer story to be told,” and the museum is consulting with local minority and other groups for help in how to tell it.

Developing a stronger rapport with neighbors is more than just a birthday wish for TAM. It’s a paramount duty to ensure this valued Tacoma cultural institution survives and thrives at least 80 more years.

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