Published in the Weekly Volcano, Nov. 21, 2014
Everybody knows not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Tacoma Art Museum certainly does. In this case, the gift horse is a bucking bronco, or lots of them — the 295 works of Western Art from the Haub Family Collection donated to TAM, plus more than $15 to build a new wing to house them.
The new wing designed by Olson Kundig Architects and built by Sellen Construction is fabulous, the art collection not so much so. It is valuable and pertinent to the history of the region (probably more so to the Southwest and the Western plains than to the Pacific Northwest, but let’s not look that bucking bronco in the mouth), and there are some famous works of art by famous artists. But it is mostly stereotypical and offers a romanticized look at cowboys and Indians glorifying America’s imperialistic western expansion.
Typical of the sculpture that greets visitors as they enter the new Haub Family Wing is Charles M. Russell’s “A Bronc Twister,” a bronze statue of a cowboy riding a bucking bronc — the most iconic of all Western images.
Albert Bierstadt’s “Departure of an Indian War Party” is a somber, dark and dignified look at a small group of Indians on horseback depicting “noble savages” in a romanticized and atmospheric landscape.
George M. Russell (American, 1864-1926) “A Bronc Twister,” modeled 1911, cast circa 1929-1933, bronze, 18 x 14½ x 9½ inches, Tacoma Art Museum, Haub Family Collection, gift of Drivan and Helga Haub, 2014.6.109.
Many of the artists never even traveled to the West. Rosa Bonheur’s Western scenes were based on a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show seen in Paris and Henry Merwin Shrady’s bronze buffalo comes from studies made at the Bronx Zoo.
But let it be known that there are also works by Native American artists and by great modern artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe. One of the nicest paintings in the show is O’Keeffe’s “Piñons With Cedar,” a lovely landscape of a ghost-like dead tree with a young green tree behind it framed by a mountain in the distance.
There are also pop art paintings by Bill Schenck, who worked with Andy Warhol and later turned to Western art. His “Snakes in the Grass” lampoons stereotypical Western art. Done in a paint-by-numbers style, it depicts two cowboys on bucking broncos on either side of large cacti.
The new wing and the outdoors sculptures by Julie Speidel by the entrance from the parking lot and Marie Watt on the Pacific Avenue side of the building provide for a much more welcoming entrance to the lobby area. But the new construction emphasizes the new wing and relegates the original galleries to a far-away area down a long hallway that felt pretty empty on the day I went there for the opening press tour. I trust that more art will be placed in that hallway or that something — anything — will be done to draw people to the older north galleries, because it is the art in those galleries that always has been and I hope will continue to be what makes Tacoma Art Museum a regional treasure.
Art of the American West: The Haub Family Collection, Wednesdays–Sundays 10 am–5 pm, Third Thursdays 10 am–8 pm, adults $10, student/military/senior (65+) $8, family $25 (2 adults and up to 4 children under 18). children 5 and under free, Third Thursdays free from 5-8 pm. Members always free, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.272.4258.