While they say it’s better to give than to receive, arts institutions kind of live or die based on the receiving end of that equation. Without generous benefactors, these spaces aren’t able to give enriching art back to the communities they represent. This is especially the case with art museums like Tacoma Art Museum that not only rely on contributions to keep operations running, but also build the vast majority of their collection through gifts of art from private collectors. Enter Rebecca Benaroya.
The Benaroya family has been a philanthropic fixture in greater Seattle for decades, with real-estate mogul Jack Benaroya contributing naming-rights-level funds to build Seattle Symphony’s Benaroya Hall and Virginia Mason Medical Center’s Benaroya Research Institute. As many wealthy couples have, Jack and his widow Rebecca built up quite an art collection, and when Rebecca was trying to figure out what to do with their impressive array of studio glassworks, Tacoma Art Museum came calling. After determining TAM was the right spot for the family’s collection, Benaroya eventually donated 353 works to create the museum’s new Benaroya Collection, and added $9.2 million for TAM to build a new wing to house it.
After beginning construction in September 2017, TAM’s new Benaroya Wing is ready for the public. With one of its facades a 46-foot-wide floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks Pacific Avenue, the wing feels open and connected to the city. The new addition includes 4,550 square feet for artwork, which increases the museum’s overall gallery space by 25 percent. To fill that space, TAM celebrates the opening of the Benaroya Wing with three distinct inaugural exhibitions.
The hallway heading toward the new wing is adorned with large black-and-white portraits of notable glass artists (and Rebecca Benaroya) by Mary Van Cline. The shots, titled Selections from The Documenta Project, are both dignified and fun, capturing the character of each artist — humanizing what can be a sometimes-cold medium, glass — before diving headfirst into the exhibitions.
Metaphor into Form: Art in the Era of the Pilchuck Glass School serves as the core exhibit to welcome visitors to the wing. It’s a fitting first exhibit for the space, as it allows TAM to include a variety of glass art styles under an overarching framework: Each artist on display has some connection to the Seattle glass school that Dale Chihuly co-founded in 1971, having learned, taught, or worked at Pilchuck over the decades. Standout pieces include Chihuly’s Tomato Red Basket Set (the Benaroya’s first glass purchase), the colorful collage of balloon-like blown glass tubes of Jen Elek’s Blanket (the most eye-catching work facing out to the city from the wing’s window facade), and the striking, violent visual body mutilation of Clifford Rainey’s Vienna and Hank Murta Adams’ Platterhead.
But the real draw for the new wing are the four full-scale, all-glass trees of Debora Moore’s Arboria, where a darkened section of gallery space morphs into an enchanted forest. Drawing from bonsai aesthetics, each sculpture represents a different season, as their roots emerge from stones to emphasize the resilience of nature. There are so many things to love about each piece. The towering scale and jutting branches defy expectations of the glasswork medium. Each colorful pedal on the blossoms or frosted-over fruit on the branches could stand alone as captivating pieces of art, but the magnitude of their repetition — where each flower is unique — makes Arboria a marvel. Even the little details sing, like the mossy green texturing on the branches, which is strategically used to cover the trees’ connective joints. Moore creates a little pocket in the world to get lost in serene, contemplative reflection … that is, if you can turn your brain down after the giddy excitement that gazing at the trees initially invokes.
The public will have its first chance to check out the Benaroya Wing during a free opening festival held on Saturday, January 19 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event will feature printing and fused glass artmaking; poetry, musical, and dance performances; and a lecture on glass from art critic and curator William Warmus.