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PEOPLE IN GLASS HOUSES
Sam North visits the new Museum of Glass in Tacoma


Tacoma and Mt Rainer

Take the T and A away from Ta-coma and you’ll get a pretty accurate name for what passes for this city on a Saturday morning. Driving in at 11am last Saturday was like arriving for your aunt’s funeral a week late. Not a bird sang, not a person stirred, it was like a scene from ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ complete with crazy person running from street to street shouting ‘they’re coming, they’re coming’. Well hell, I was, but when I inspected my mirror, I was the only one in town. If I’d had a gun I would have checked to see if it was loaded.

The famous Beaux Arts Rialto. Photo: Sam North
You’ll also be in luck because this is the beginning of Antique Row on Seventh Avenue and there’s a lot to see here. Now if you travel as much as myself, you’ll know that when you get ‘Antique Rows’ it’s a sign that the town is either dead, dying or about to undergo revitalisation. It is always one of the above.

Window from Former Tacoma Mansion
Photo: Sam North


The Tacoma Mouse on Antique Row
Photo: Sam North



The rents are low; the spaces huge and full of character and the people, when they deign to come out of hiding are friendly, but shy and unfashionably honest. The best place to start is probably the auction house Sanford and Son (auctions Wednesdays at 7pm). It’s a cornucopia of eclectic pieces, genuine 30’s and earlier oak and walnut cupboards and chairs and some enormous wonderful glass windows taken from the mansions that have sadly been torn down. You can see they were very grand homes indeed and that’s Tacoma’s tragedy. People are also very honest here; they leave money under the paperweights if there’s no one around. There are rows of places with collectibles what can be best described as ‘junktiques’, but it all has a price and even if it’s lunch boxes, someone is collecting them.

Tacoma is absolutely dead, nowhere deader and that includes Boksburg on a Sunday. I am assured it is a thriving metropolis on weekdays, but the very absence of a Starbucks on any corner, let alone every corner, tells the real truth. (OK I exagerate, there are two Starbucks but one was closed). So who is to blame for this? Tacoma isn’t on the ‘tour’ list and so you’ll miss the wonderful Beaux Arts wedding cake ‘Rialto’ building that must have started life as a movie theatre in 1918 but now houses the Youth Symphony and Ballet Company. You’ll also miss the wonderful Pantages Theatre on Broadway where well respected Tacoma Opera and Symphony play, also built in 1918. *Strangely enough this last August, Elton John played the Tacoma Dome, which is either a comment on his career or he knows Tacoma could do with some help.
Tacoma has made quite a few town planning mistakes in it’s past. The major one being the building of a complex highway system that completely cuts the city off from Commencement Bay and Thea Foss Waterway. Unlike Vancouver, there are no homes neatly terraced down the slopes to the water on the city side and more’s the pity. It’s strictly business downtown and since everyone on the west coast seems to quit at four and head on home to the ‘burbs, the bars, cafes, and hotels that would serve city residents don’t need to exist. There is a 319 room Sheraton and a 90 room Silver Cloud Inn, but precious little else. In fact people don’t appear to live in the city at all. The lack of corner shops, cafes, boutiques is testimony to a lost time. Everything has moved to the out of town mall and the people gone with them.
WHICH BRINGS US TO THE MUSEUM OF GLASS

The Museum of Glass
View from the waterfront

Photo: Sam North

The Chihuly Venetian Wall- Photo: S.N.


The Bridge of Glass
The bridge is 500 feet long and at the other end is the Museum itself. The 90-foot high stainless steel conical form at a 17-degree angle hints at the old wood burners that used to signify the old sawmills of a generation ago
.
You reach the entrance via shallow concrete steps that sweep you passed a water bed of glass Chihuly baubles and before it some clear glass weather vanes. Finally you reach a strange Alice in Wonderland view of cane teapot, cup and saucer. These are huge and amusing and set you up for the museum well.
Inside there is vast airport space with a smaller gallery space on the right, a shop, petite café and ‘Hot Shop Amphitheatre’ where you can watch glass artists working with big-screen close ups via CCTV.

If at first one is impressed by the space, there really does seem to be an anomaly here. The gallery space is wholly underwhelming with a current exhibit of sketches by some European glass artists and a few, very few samples of glasswork. It is with total surprise you realise that this is it. Something isn’t working here. A Museum of Glass without glass, not even Philip Glass. The café is a source of annoyance for visitors who have to line-up to line-up but the Hot Shop receives much praise and is the focal point of the musuem in many ways. Nevertheless, given that glass making has existed for over three hundred years or more with First Nation work, Spanish Missions and then the settlers, it would seem logical somehow that a Museum of Glass should reflect some of that. The building is also listed as the Center for Contemporary Art and that should probably be what is written on the side of the building before you pay the $8 bucks. (A Yorkshireman would understand this).

The public space seems under utilised. Just as the Tate Modern didn’t really know what to do with their empty space in London when they first opened and it is a pity that more thought hasn’t gone into what should be in the museum. (You can see Chihuly Bridge for free and his main body of work is to be found at 12th and Pacific Avenue at the either the State History Museum or the new Museum of Art on Pacific Avenue where the Garden of Glass is the star attraction.)


The wonderful eccentric cane artwork outside the museum
Photo:© Sam North (note man in furthest object to gauge actual size)
A building that is so impressive on the exterior should be equally accessible and appropriate on the inside. Aside from celebrating Dale Chihuly, Arthur Erikson wanted his museum to contribute to the rebirth of Tacoma and it might just do that, there was quite a crowd was there on Saturday.

But I can’t help thinking that although it is good to enable the redevelopment of the waterfront on Dock Row it would have been more appropriate to have found an empty Victorian building around Seventh to Ninth Avenues and built something exciting inside one of those huge spaces. They could have brought the people to Tacoma, just as they planned and enabled a recolonisation of the city. Right now, you can drive down from Seattle or Portland, park, see the Museum and go home, never even know there’s a city waiting, desperate to be discovered above Pacific Avenue.

Go see the Museum of Glass yourself, form your own opinions, but promise me you’ll visit downtown Tacoma whilst you’re there.See the new garden of Glass at the new Museum of Art on Pacific Avenue. Plenty of glass in Antique Row…
Since the Musuem of Galss opened last year it has already had 240,000 visitors (as of May 2003) You can also visit the Harold le May Classic Car Museum in Tacoma as well as the History Museum.

Princeton's Chihuly Glass

And don't forget Tully's Coffee Shop by Antique Row
Photo © Sam North

You can visit the Museum Virtually at www.museumofglass.org

© Sam North
August 2002
email: editor@hackwriters.com


See also: Dale Chihuly- The Emperor of Seattle


Hot Sweats in a Cold Read at the Anza Club

Fast Forward life in Vancouver on quicktime

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