Dale Chihuly and Old Cars

We visit the region's two new tourist museums.

Somewhere between Disneyland and the Met lies a realm of specialized collections that straddle art and commerce. Let's call them tourist museums—places like Hearst's San Simeon or New York's now-closed Gallery of Modern Art, where wealthy/eccentric benefactors proudly display their obsessions. And we're not talking about sad, dusty trinket shops and taxidermy stands on forgotten old highways: Paul Allen invested $240 million and hired Frank Gehry for his now-12-year-old EMP. A Walmart heiress just spent even more, and arguably has more and better to show, at the new Crystal Bridges collection of American art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

This summer welcomed two new tourist museums to the region. In Tacoma, the LeMay—America's Car Museum now houses highlights from the collection of Harold LeMay (1919–2000), the South Sound trash-hauling baron who amassed some 3,000 vehicles. At Seattle Center, we have the $20 million Chihuly Garden and Glass, privately funded by Dale Chihuly, who needs little introduction. Both debuted in time for tourist season, so I joined the late-summer throngs to see what highbrow museum- and gallery-goers are missing.

Appropriately situated between a freeway and parking lots, the ACM is a close neighbor to the windowless Tacoma Dome, taking advantage of a terrific view of Commencement Bay. Looking like a lopsided aircraft hangar, clad in shiny aluminum, the museum suggests a giant metal sea slug or sushi roll basking in the salt air. Designed by L.A. architect Alan Grant, the museum stands out strikingly in its open setting. Few new buildings get such a privileged site, and I'd love to see it at Seattle Center in a face-off with Gehry.

As with any museum, the focus is interior: rows of cars parked on four descending levels. (LeMay's original trove has been cut in half; some 300 to 500 cars will be on view in rotating groups, plus loaners from other collectors.) You enter through the gift shop, a frank acknowledgment of purpose. LeMay was an up-from-nothing child of the Depression, and the ACM raised most of its $65 million budget from sponsors and memberships, with Tacoma and the state kicking in about $22 million. Upstairs on the mezzanine, a cafe offers a nice view down to the main level, its ceiling vaulted with bent-wood trusses of spruce. Even if you don't like cars, it's a great space that could house anything. If Damien Hirst would ever like to pickle and hang a blue whale, I know just the place.

The ramps and levels below are more conventionally garage-like, concrete and charmless. Wall photos and video kiosks offer additional information about the cars—and corporate sponsors. The sound of screaming engines is pumped into one section; in another are pay-to-play stations for slot- car racing and big-screen driving games. Otherwise you constantly hear snapping camera shutters. Here and at Chihuly Garden, there's no restriction on photography—unlike at most museums, and that's part of the populist draw. Something else you wouldn't see at SAM: A boy maybe 10 years old, lying on the floor with his colored-pencil box and paper, carefully sketching his favorite car. That's the kind of repeat visitor all museums should try to cultivate.

Interestingly, the ACM does acknowledge non-gasoline-powered vehicles: I was amused to note more electric cars inside the museum than out in the parking lot. Visitors skew male, wearing dad jeans and comfortable shoes. They can't touch the cordoned-off vehicles, but there's much bending over to inspect—hands on knees—with talk of carburetors and camshafts. Enthusiastic gearheads come with advance knowledge, but it's not esoteric knowledge. You don't need an MFA to stare at an old Ford. It's a happy, self-selecting crowd, one that's not being dragged to see something edifying.

The same applies at Chihuly Garden: True to the spirit of the '62 World's Fair, there's hucksterism in the air, the ghost of P.T. Barnum. People know in advance what they're getting, what's being sold. Only here you exit through the large gift shop, where postcards start at $1 and signed prints and small glass pieces run toward 10 grand. The whole enterprise is slick and well-run, the building designed by Owen Richards with landscape architect AHBL. A screen of cedar trees on the perimeter—facing the Space Needle entrance off Broad Street—limits the picture-taking outside. Inside, if you didn't bring a camera, a neat little kiosk allows you to e-mail approved photos to friends. (I didn't visit the attached Collections Café, decorated with Chihuly's own bric-a-brac, but our Hanna Raskin says it's the best place to eat at Seattle Center.)

Chihuly's galleries are hushed and dark, so his wares can be dramatically lit. Just about every visitor had a glowing iPhone—either to snap pictures or listen to the audio tour. Kids were better-behaved than I expected; for them, perhaps, it's like visiting a planetarium with these giant colored orbs. Do they even miss the Fun Forest? That's for geezers to mourn, apparently. A theater plays videos of the master at work, growling orders to his minions ("That's the way nature would do it . . . !"). It's self- serving, true, but Chihuly paid for this shrine—and the city needs the sales-tax revenue.

Out in the atrium and courtyard (a perfect wedding-rental venue), there's room to roam and tables for sitting—but not eating. Weirdly, fake bird calls are piped in, perhaps to combat the music from buskers outside. I would worry about kids running into the flower beds where glass tendrils protrude, but there are plenty of staff on duty. And anything that breaks, Chihuly Industries can easily replace.

I'm no fan of Chihuly's work, but the execution here is satisfying, like a visit to the Apple store. Nowhere do you read the word "museum." It's a place of appreciation, not awe. For me, the best thing on display was a wall of Edward S. Curtis photographs of Native Americans. Maybe they'll lead some visitors to real museums. Down in Tacoma, my favorite item was a red 1971 Ferrari Daytona—a touchstone of childhood, today worth nearly $400,000. Chihuly's oversized baubles are out of my price range, too, but that's what gift shops are for. Maybe an ACM key fob and a baseball cap bearing Chihuly's Hotbox logo . . . no, wait, I don't want to become a hoarder like LeMay or Chihuly! Both are humble South Sound kids who did good—who built fortunes out of their private obsessions, which these mercantile museums faithfully celebrate.

 
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