Arts & Culture

TAM’s Haub Western art wing opens next weekend with a sleek design — and art that needs explaining

By Rosemary Ponnekanti - Staff writer

November 09, 2014 12:00 AM

When Tacoma Art Museum throws open the doors to its new Haub Family Galleries wing next weekend after 11 months of construction, there will be a lot to celebrate beyond the first exhibit: “Art of the American West: The Haub Family Collection.”

For the museum, Erivan and Helga Haub’s donation of $20 million and 295 pieces of Western art represents the biggest gift the 79-year-old institution has ever had, and the collection is one of the world’s biggest of the genre.

For passersby, the $15.5 million expansion — partially funded through other sources — means a sheltered, landscaped sidewalk and both indoor and outdoor sculptures. For museum visitors, it means twice as much gallery space, a free art studio, a better cafe and a bigger elevator, plus some clever design in the new galleries.

“We’re incredibly excited,” TAM board president Steve Barger said. “It’s been a long process. … We think the community will be excited (too). It’s spectacular.”

“It was totally exciting to see the wing,” said Liliane Haub, who along with her husband, Christian (the family’s third son), has been part of the building committee, and who is now on the TAM board. They, along with the senior Haubs, two other sons and much of the extended family, will attend the opening celebrations.

“I can’t believe it’s been just three years from idea to opening,” she said.

But in a wider cultural sense, there is some controversy about a Wild West TAM.

Recently making a name for itself as a destination for Northwest art, Tacoma will now be known as the Northwest’s only venue for Western art — an art form that even the Haubs have acknowledged is disdained by many in the fine art world.

And the collection includes many 19th century works that stereotype and romanticize Native American culture in a way that can only partly be mitigated by descriptive labeling.

“The West is not the same story as the Northwest,” said Marvin Oliver, a Native American artist and professor of American Indian studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Northwest people have been here a long time, even white people. We’re not transplants. It’s important that the museum reflects that.”

A NEW PLAZA

Under the museum’s new 35-foot-high steel and aluminum mesh portico, the tall, revamped red entry doors are the first reminder of why TAM has a new wing in the first place: It needed a new entrance.

Since the Antoine Predock-designed building on Pacific Avenue was opened in 2003, both of TAM’s entrances have been unremarkable — the back way an awkwardly small elevator bringing visitors up to the coat check, and the front way almost invisible from the street, hidden by the smooth front wall.

About three years ago, the museum began casting around for designs and support for redoing the plaza. Director Stephanie Stebich happened to approach John Barline, lawyer for the Haub family. The German supermarket billionaires had spent summers in Tacoma since their honeymoon, supported much of Tacoma’s renaissance and were annual museum donors who also contributed to the new building campaign.

But Barline offered the museum something bigger: The museum could have its new plaza — along with the Haub’s extensive Western art collection and a $20 million dollar donation to help build a home for it. It’s the kind of offer that doesn’t come along often for regional museums. Stebich — who also is German by birth — snapped it up, Tom Kundig was hired as the architect, and construction broke ground a year ago this month.

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Now, visitors can reap the benefits without even entering the museum.

The new wing, which slots into the steely-gray L-shaped portico, is designed with a nod to both Native longhouses and railroading history. On the street side, cleverly designed bronze sliding screens allow the indoor sculpture hall to be just visible from the concrete sitting bench that runs the length of the wing, holding in red-hipped rugosas.

Five white-barked birch trees line Pacific Avenue: At one end will be Marie Watt’s arching bronze “Blanket Stories,” which was cast from blankets donated this year, and at the other, just outside the cafe, will be Scott Fife’s bear-and-eaglet “Explorers”next year. Below, in the parking lot, Julie Speidel’s dice-like shapes in bright blue and red mark the new glass-enclosed entrance.

“I like it,” architectural historian Michael Sullivan said. “The new wing, especially the mesh arch, starts to create a new balance, bronze versus gray.”

Sullivan also sees the new addition creating a chevron angle that references the city’s railroad past and balances the open space of Tollefson Plaza across the street. .

“I think the ensemble makes great sense,” Sullivan said. “And the storefront reference makes the streetscape feel warmer.”

The portico not only announces the museum’s entrance it also offers an outdoor space and a screen for projecting light-based art. The museum has gotten the plaza it was looking for.

COMMUNITY SPACE

Another element folded into the expansion was a renovation of the existing lobby, and this, too, fills a number of museum wants.

TAM has for the past decade aimed at being a community gathering space, offering festivals, performances and educational events. Hosting those types of events is much easier in a lobby that’s twice as big.

On the poured dark gray concrete floor, it’s hard to spot the division between new and old. On the street side, a bigger store, quieter cafe and interactive art studio (moved downstairs, and now free) bridge the gap between street and gallery, while the elevator from the parking lot is much bigger and arrives into a light-filled corridor offering a view of Mount Rainier.

The restrooms are bigger; glass walls let in light; the mezzanine has been repainted. The whole project, delivered on time and on budget, even had some spare change to provide a big screen to allow popular lecture events to be viewed in the lobby.

Said Stebich: “The trend in museums these days is to be much more transparent, like at San Francisco (Museum of Modern Art)MoMA, where the entire first floor is open to the public.”

FOUR NEW GALLERIES

One of the biggest benefits for the museum and its visitors is the Haub wing offers four new galleries and a sculpture hall, doubling the existing gallery space. Design-wise, the wing blends both new features and existing style in a restful, light-filled way: At the entrance, a maple floor echoes the older galleries, while an orientation space offers visitors a video explaining the collection.

Immediately opposite is a handy device Stebich calls “the gizmo,” a ship’s wheel connected with chains and cables to the sliding screens outside, and which turns smoothly to operate them together or singly to filter light. (It’s kept locked, but Stebich is already talking about offering a few wheel-turns as an auction item.)

The ability to stand inside an art collection and look outside to a city street also adds to the open feeling of the sculpture hall.

Clustered pedestals move visitors in a winding path past table-top sculptures, such as James Earle Fraser’s bracing “In the Wind” horse, through the hall to the main three galleries, each named after one of Erivan and Helga Haub’s sons and each organized around themes of portraiture, narrative and landscape.

Here, Kundig’s design shines: Pale ivory walls float on 6-inch cut-out pockets, while feature walls — in calming Colonial colors of deep teal, maroon and pale blue — are framed with light from the sculpture hall behind and a white base underneath. This simple idea keeps the collection, with its ornate period (or period-imitation) gold frames, from being heavy or drawing-roomlike.

Instead there’s a modernistic ranch feel — not surprising, since the Haubs spend a lot of time on their ranch in Wyoming (as well as on their Puget Sound property).

Finally, a tiny gallery backing onto extra storage room offers an opportunity to sit with some miscellaneous works tucked behind glass — the only such protected works in the whole wing, other than some sculptures. A door then leads back to the lobby, creating a giant U out of the new wing and allowing an easy journey through its collection.

IMAGINING THE WEST IN ART

But the focus of the Haub donation, and the entire new wing and renovation, is the art — and here’s where the disagreements start.

Of the 295 works (the Haubs have bought and added a few since the donation was first announced), curator Laura Fry has chosen the best 130 to display, with key works in choice places.

Works given pride of place are Thomas Moran’s cloudswept “Green River, Wyoming;” Georgia O’Keeffe’s ethereal “Piñons with Cedar;” Albert Bierstadt’s lushly romantic “Departure of an Indian War Party.” Most of this art has never been in public view before.

With most smaller works hung in pairs salon-style, Fry has created some interesting groupings. Charles Bird King’s 1826 “Wanata (the Charger), Grand Chief of the Sioux,” is one of the collection’s oldest works, and is paired in the gallery’s entrance with one of the newest: Clyde Aspevig’s “White Cliffs of the Missouri” of 2009.

O’Keeffe is contrasted with styles she was trying to avoid, such as the Taos impressionism of Ernest Blumenschein and Birger Sandzen.

Studies sit next to finished paintings, bronzes near their oils. The central wall of the landscape-themed third gallery celebrates national parks of the West: Mount Rainier, Mount McKinley, the Grand Canyon over a snow-blue wall.

Fry also chose a wide range of styles, from 19th century pictorialism through cubism, expressionism and modernism to the hyper-color of John Nieto, whose “Buffalo at Sunset” also is displayed on one of the Link trains; and the pastel cowboy pop art of Bill Schenck, obviously popular with the Haubs with no fewer than seven works in the collection.

Some of the art, however, has more to do with imagination than the reality of the West.

A Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington (the one from the $1 bill; Stuart painted 130 of them) is in a set of Native American leader portraits, including Kane’s “Portrait of Maungwudaus,” the Ojibwe stage performer here painted in classical European grandeur. The effect is as if to equate the leaders of Native and white nations, yet the 19th-century reality was quite different.

The artistic disconnect continues with artists like Rosa Bonheur (who worked in Paris, and whose only connection with Native America was the touring Buffalo Bill show) and artists like Charles Bird King and Henry Inman who painted from the safety of the East Coast.

For those who did visit the West, the portrayals range from the Euro-anthropological (Karl Bodmer) to the white-triumphant (Albertus Del Orient Browere) to those who idealized cowboys (Edward Borein) and mythologized the landscape while ignoring the effects of immigration (John Mix Stanley). Many, like Charles Russell, portrayed Native Americans as doomed (“When the Plains were His”), ignoring those who were still trying to survive.

Out of the 140 artists in the Haub collection, just three are Native.

Casting Native Americans as a tragically doomed, noble race was particularly common in German literature and art, contributing to a German fascination with the idea of the American West.

“This stereotyping is highly problematic,” said Karsten Fitz, a professor at the University of Passau in Germany, who has guest-lectured in Tacoma on his work in Native American studies. “(It) idealizes Native Americans as a culture that is gone, not one that has made it into the 21st century.”

Fry, the curator, acknowledges that John Clymer’s “The Storyteller” — where a group of naked Native Americans huddle underneath Haida totem poles with serene mountains behind — and several others in the gallery had little to do with actual Native culture.

She says the museum is working creatively with various tribal spokespeople to educate the community through the wall texts.

“Rather than ignore it, we are trying to unpack it,” she explained.

Part of the unpacking is being spearheaded by art scholar Asia Tail, originally from Tacoma and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Interviewing various tribal members, Tail is the second Haub Fellow, paid by the family’s endowment to collate contemporary Native American views on these historic Euro-centric works. She’s folding what she learns into educational materials at the museum and in outreach partnerships.

“It’s good for visitors to look at art that depicts Indians as vanishing … then look over to a wall text and see people from 2014,” Tail said. “As Native people, we see these images a lot, from cars to sports. It’s not upsetting — it’s more an opportunity to see this part of history and raise it with other people. It’s an opportunity for Native people to finally have a voice and comment on this long tradition of problematic imagery.”

“This is art, not documentary,” Fry said. “We see this as the West of artists’ imagination. We’re using it as a conversation starter.”

Connie McCloud, tribal elder and cultural director of the Puyallup tribe, was one of the people Tail interviewed, and describes the works they discussed as “stereotypes.”

“Today, museums have a responsibility to tell all of our stories,” McCloud said. “Tacoma Art Museum is very close to a longhouse site where our people lived for thousands of years before Europeans were here. So it’s important to recognize that Native people are here, alive and well today, and to represent our culture in the way our tribe sees it. At least the museum is willing to have that conversation.”

McCloud and the Puyallup Canoe Family will be at the opening Saturday to give a welcoming blessing and perform.

“I hope we can continue our relationship with the museum to express our own story, and that (it) will ... point out where the stereotypes and misrepresentations exist,” McCloud said.

Fry also is keen to show how themes and narratives in Western art play into art of the Northwest, which was TAM’s focus until the Haub donation.

And the decision to build an entire wing for this art?

“It’s meant to generate thinking,” TAM board president Barger said, after a pause. “The museum isn’t afraid to have controversial exhibits.”

PUTTING TACOMA ON THE MAP

Ultimately, museum officials and outsiders alike think that the Haub collection will put Tacoma on the art world map.

For Marvin Oliver, it’s the wrong kind of fame for a museum that has a Northwest collection of more than 3,000 artworks.

“Tacoma’s becoming much more prominent,” he said. “That should encourage (the museum) to be the center of Northwest art. When travelers visit the Northwest, they want to see our culture, not to see something from somewhere else.”

For others, the quality of the collection is a boon to TAM.

“This is a very specific collection,” said Andrew Walker, director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, who is coming to the wing’s opening. “The quality is high, the depth is strong, and it has an entire chronology which is unusual in a private collection. And for a regional museum like Tacoma, being able to … go from a regional story to continental significance, will absolutely put them on the map.”

“It’s wonderful to have an institution in the Northwest with an interest in this material,” said Thomas Brent Smith, curator of Western American art at the Denver Art Museum, who also is planning to attend the opening. “Oftentimes the story of the Northwest has been left out of the Western narrative.”

“For us to have one of the best Western art collections in the country, that’s really something,” Barger agreed.

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