Road Trip: Tacoma Art Museum

Photo of Tacoma's 21st Street Bridge, Museum of Glass, Tacoma Dome, and Mt. Rainier

The Tacoma Art Museum is a total delight. Three people in the past month since I’ve moved to the Seattle area have told me it’s not to be missed, and they’re right.

It’s a beautiful new building (built in 2003) in a beautiful part of town, overlooking Mt. Rainier, and some other architectural gems like the Museum of Glass and Union Station. The front desk team and docents are wonderful. Yes, I’m still basking in the idea that people are willing to have conversations with me, unlike in NYC, but they really do go above and beyond, and are extremely knowledgeable about the shows.

The floor plan is open and roomy. Human scale and comfort in the space is important, to the extent that there is a clean, comfy couch positioned in front of a video screen in the gallery.

The current shows are relevant and contemporary: Beyond Books: The Independent Art of Eric Carle and Drawing Line into Form, about the 2D drawings that sculptors use to sketch out their 3D ideas. The exhibit focuses on Carle’s non-book art, techniques, influences, and other interests, such as set design. In the video at the start of the exhibition, Carle makes an off-the-cuff connection between his non-picture book art and Dada, literally discovering something new about his own work in mid-interview. For an 83-year old best-selling author/illustrator who is also the subject of an entire museum (see below), it seems to me that these new discoveries don’t come along every day. This is pretty thrilling stuff.

Mr. Carle, by the way, comes across as a genuinely lovely person, and the docent backed up this thought with some sweet anecdotes about his visit to the exhibition opening. They really do know their stuff, and this insight enriched our visit.

The artists in Drawing Line into Form are nearly all heavy hitters in the international art scene, and many of the 3D pieces that sprang from these drawings can be seen nearby, particularly at Western Washington University’s campus in Bellingham, just over an hour away. It was nice how the show teed up another local art visit, should anyone be so inclined.

And now for what I think is the most special part of the museum, the Open Art Studio. This is a do-it-yourself space where visitors of any age are encouraged to make art. The space is amazingly clean and light-filled and alive. It also operates on two levels, like The Muppet Show or Sesame Street: kids will love it, and adults will too, because everyone can appreciate it at his or her own level of sophistication. In fact, of the five people who were there when we were, none of them were children. It’s actually a terrific setting for a date.

photo of art studio table

Tables are covered in craft paper, ready to go, and there are suitcases, labelled “Painting” or “Drawing” or “Jewelry” and so on that are waiting under a table. They’re hip, hard-backed black cases with silver trim, and there is a sense of James Bond-like mystery to them. Upon unlatching them, you’ll find that they contain everything you need to undertake a project in that medium. Likewise, there are wall-mounted bins containing printmaking supplies: brayers, ink, paper, pre-made rubber stamps, as well as the materials and instructions to make your own low-cost, low-tech “woodblock” (from foamcore), which can then be used to make your own print.

Everything I love about the Tacoma Art Museum can be summed up in little details like this: the pre-made rubber stamps weren’t craft items from a children’s art set. Nothing wrong with that if they were, but the Museum goes a step further by making their own stamps from pieces of bicycle tire stapled to small blocks of wood. Genius! This is undoubtedly a good use of tight funds, and equally important, that abstract pattern can suggest far more to a curious mind than a pre-fab cartoon stamp.

photo of donation box with a scale inside: art supplies on one side, dollar bills on the other

Tacoma Art Museum, Open Art Studio donation box

That same ingenuity can even be found in the donation box set up in the room: a balancing scale, with a small bucket of art supplies on one side, and a small bucket of money, placed under a hole cut in the box, on the other. The wall text above says: “HELP US BALANCE THE COST OF THE OPEN ART STUDIO! THANK YOU!”. So much more visually interesting than the usual plain plexiglass box, and I found myself wondering how much money I could put in to cause the balance to shift. What a great psychological chess move, whereas I’ve never thought twice about a plain donation box in my life. There are some bright lights at work here.

I’m extremely impressed with this museum and look forward to going back–often.

[Side note and hometown shout-outs:

1. Carle designed sets and costumes for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Symphony’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Having grown up in the area, I can tell you that Springfield isn’t often in the limelight. Good for Carle for making this happen, with the noted budget restrictions (such as costumes made from Tyvek) too. Carle lives in Western Mass, and I made a note to myself to visit The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst the next time I’m in town.

2. Besides me, there was another Red Sox fan in the Open Art Studio.]