How do you build an art museum from scratch?
Over the past five years, folks on Bainbridge Island have been figuring that out. And the fruit of their efforts, the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA), opens on Friday.
The museum, just a short stroll from the ferry terminal, is almost the first thing you see as you make your way into Winslow. Resembling the prow of a glass ship, the 20,000-square-foot building dominates the corner where Highway 305 and Winslow Way East intersect.
BIMA is the brainchild of arts patron Cynthia Sears. After she and her husband moved to Bainbridge in 1989, she began collecting local artists’ work. But it bothered her that there was no public venue providing a full overview of what was happening in the local art scene.
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Sears’ children were grown and she wasn’t working — so she realized, as she explained in a recent phone interview, that she had “the perfect opportunity to do something.”
By 2008 the museum site had been secured, and in 2009 the museum’s founding board was established. Matthew Coates soon came on board as architect, and the first thing he did was ask Sears about her vision for the museum.
Her reply made a big impression on him.
“I envision a library for art,” she said.
She went on to explain that she saw art as such an important part of the community that she felt people should have free access to it, all the time. Asked what she thought the building should look like, she said she didn’t know, but that she knew what she hoped reviews of the building would be like: “I want people to say: ‘It’s a little gem.’ ”
It is that. Two floors, each with its own spacious gallery, are open to the public. A curving staircase, open to the light, connects the gallery, creating a grand effect on a compact scale. Inside the “ship’s prow,” an aquatic-themed installation, made from recycled materials by Port Townsend artist Margie McDonald, looms in a trapezoid of glass looking down in the direction of the ferry terminal.
Greg Robinson has charge of the museum, and his duties as executive director are both curatorial and administrative. He brings a varied background to the job. Local arts-scene followers will know him as the former executive director of the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Skagit County. But he got his master’s degree in public administration and spent his early career in hospital planning in New York. He came on board at BIMA in late 2010.
“The footprint of the building was designed,” he recalls. “The interiors weren’t completely planned, so I worked to help to find some of the programmatic needs inside.”
It took a $15.6 million capital campaign to get the project off the ground, of which $1 million remains to be raised. Getting people to fund an institution that doesn’t exist yet was, Robinson admits, a little trickier than soliciting funds for something already up and running.
Robinson is forthright about the museum’s mission: “We will be a collecting museum. … We have the beginnings of a permanent art collection.” The focus, he adds, will be on artists who are lesser known or who haven’t had a “museum opportunity” yet.
“What we really want to do is curate here, from the region,” Robinson says, “with an emphasis, early on, on the West Sound.”
One of the museum’s two large galleries will display works from the permanent collection. The other is reserved for rotating shows that will be locally curated.
For the museum’s opening, seven exhibits will be on display. They include a selection from the permanent collection, a retrospective of work by Bainbridge artist/children’s book author Barbara Helen Berger, and “First Light: Regional Group Exhibition,” co-curated by Robinson and six guest curators.
One of Coates’ biggest design challenges was how to allow incoming light without damaging the artwork. Adjustable sun louvers, windows with built-in UV protection, internal mechanical blinds and movable walls will keep out damaging sun rays.
“At night,” Coates says, “the building’s going to glow like a jewel box, a beacon.”
Coates and the board went to great lengths to make the museum energy-efficient. Geothermal wells below the building and solar panels on its rooftop are connected to its heating system, reducing electric consumption. The building was designed to meet the standards for LEED Gold certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. If it gets the certification, it will be the first museum in the state to do so.
In addition to gallery spaces, the building includes an auditorium that seats 99, a classroom, archive/storage space and a small museum store. There’s parking for 180 cars on the site, but much of the foot traffic is expected to come from tourists and Seattleites making a day trip across the Sound.
Sears’ most earnest hope for the museum is that it will serve as a window into the vibrant local art scene and allow young artists in the region to get a foot in the door: “I would just love people to be able to appreciate the artists and the craft persons who are working around us now and give them attention and support while they’re still alive. And I think this is one way to do it.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org