Just like the pioneers, the Tacoma Art Museum is reinventing itself. Well, OK, not exactly like the pioneers, but there is a sense of optimism, expansion and celebratory acquisitiveness within TAM’s freshly remodeled building.
The additional light-filled Haub Family Galleries boast a brand-spanking-new exhibition that — for a while, anyway — reframes the museum within the American West.
This reframing was prompted by an incredibly generous gift of 295 works of art from Erivan and Helga Haub, a German couple with long ties to Tacoma. They spent many summers in the area, their three sons were born there, and they have been instrumental in the redevelopment of downtown Tacoma with monetary donations to TAM, the Museum of Glass, LeMay: America’s Car Museum and the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus.
The Haubs were fascinated with the myth of the American West even before coming to America. Guided by intuition and expert advice, they started collecting Western art: paintings, works on paper, and sculpture from the 1790s to the present day.
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Within the 133 works currently on view, there’s a heavy emphasis on landscapes, portraits, and animal and genre scenes (scenes of everyday life). We are met with sweeping vistas of mountains and river valleys, scenes of cowboys and their horses, and idealized images of Native Americans.
It’s easy to understand why the Tacoma Art Museum would want this collection. It’s the first large private collection of its kind to become public in many years and the first for the Northwest. When considering any collection, museum administrators are often willing to accept duds in the hope of acquiring even a few outstanding pieces. Here, the quality is consistently high, even if the subject matter is a little repetitive for my taste.
There are some excellent works, from a little jewel of a painting by John Mix Stanley called “Scene on the Columbia River” (1852) to the boldly naïve portrait by Charles Bird King titled “Wanata (The Charger), Grand Chief of the Sioux” (1826). In a perhaps inadvertent statement about displaced but noble leadership, King painted a series of portraits of Native American leaders who visited the East Coast during a time of exploitation.
There are some surprises, too. Sure, there’s a Remington. But it’s not one of his well-known bronze sculptures of bucking broncos; it’s a vivid painting titled “Conjuring Back the Buffalo.”
While Frederic Remington actually visited various Western territories, Rosa Bonheur, the celebrated French artist, had yet to set foot in the United States when she painted her take on the American West. After an 1889 visit to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Paris, Bonheur created “Rocky Bear and Chief Red Shirt,” returning repeatedly to sketch the performers.
There are some modern and contemporary images as well. Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Piñons with Cedar” (1956) is an ethereal vision of the earthbound, eternal cycles in her beloved New Mexico.
My favorite work blends the past with the present. Mian Situ created “The Entrepreneur — San Francisco” in 2006, but it reads like a 19th-century painting, like what John Singer Sargent might have created if he had gone West to witness the cultural collisions. It’s a beautifully rendered, fictitious 19th-century scene: a wealthy Chinese man poses for a photograph in front of a backdrop of fake Euro-American opulence. His family looks not at him, but at the newfangled camera. In a flash, the painting develops notions of immigration, labor, status and image.
As a whole, the collection and its prominent display for at least one year reshapes the museum. TAM has regularly displayed national and international art, but has also — rightly — emphasized its collection of Pacific Northwest Art (some gems of which are currently on view in an exhibition called “The Northwest in the West”) and it has hosted the biennial of Northwest art for years.
Now there’s an expanded regional focus. Certainly, the history of Puget Sound is tied into the histories and mythos of the larger West. But do contemporary residents of this region think of themselves as living in the American West or in the Great Pacific Northwest? Do residents of Eastern Washington and rural areas feel more connected to that larger regional identity? How does Tacoma, with its industrial past, fit in?
These questions are, in part, prompted by the makeup of the Haub Collection, which, overall, evokes the open, rugged ambience of big sky country or the Southwest, rather than the deep greens, blues and mists of Puget Sound. Moving forward, presumably, the museum will be able to reconceptualize these new holdings, folding in more works that feel relevant to the Northwestern experience.
The exhibition at TAM does an outstanding job of stressing that the American West is a set of actual places and a set of ideas. Many works cast light on individualism, sentimentality, and the appropriation and idealization of native cultures and the land. In the end, the collection has the potential to expand beyond itself, provoking further thought.