Art Guide

The New BAM:
The One You Have to See

By Deloris Tarzan Ament

Art is a verb at the new $23 million Bellevue Art Museum (BAM). Moving into the radical red building designed by internationally noted architect Steven Holl, the museum jumped from 6,000 square feet to 36,000, and leaped from sponsoring four classes a year to a schedule of 40 a week; from no space for special events to a state-of-the-art reconfigurable auditorium that has something going on every hour the museum is open. The acceleration could leave you giddy.

This is an art museum without a collection. Zip. Nada. Its exhibitions celebrate special kinds of creativity. The opening show, "Luminous," was organized by BAM curator Brian Wallace as an international, multi-media exhibition focusing on artists use of light.

The new Bellevue Art Museum, 510 Bellevue Way E. Photo: Lara Swimmer

Bellevue Art Museum forum. Photo: Lara Swimmer

Museum director Diane Douglas. Photo: Lara Gillis

But without a permanent collection, is this really a museum? "We wrestle with people's expectations," says museum director Diane Douglas. "We've had some controversy about whether to keep the name museum. We're more like an art center. We take in the whole spectrum of the creative process, from ideas through trials and errors, the process of making a work, and not just showing the finished piece itself. We're also interested in what happens after a work of art enters the public domain. It has a life of its own, complete with the politics and social issues people bring to it. We want to connect an artwork backward to the artist and forward to the culture. Is it a piece of momentary importance or will it stand the test of time? This is a really important part for a contemporary art museum to play."

It harks back to the intention of the worlds first museum, in 280 bc Alexandria. A building sacred to the Muses, devoted to learning and the arts, was called a museum. BAM richly deserves the name. Holl pays tribute to the Muses with his inspired design. Known for the functional intelligence of his work, Holl correlated BAM's triple mission -- to create, explore, and learn about art -- to the structure itself, organized around the concept of three. The three-story building is clad in three elements: concrete textured to look like 18-inch wood planks, hand-sanded panels of cool blue marine aluminum, and glass.

Fully one third of the building's exterior is window, a love affair with light impossible for a museum with a permanent collection of old and fragile art for which every moment in sunlight would contribute to a slow deterioration. Holl shaped the building with three curving galleries that stretch across the top floor. The elliptical Court of Light follows the curve of the earth's 48th parallel, allowing one to watch the sun trace the curve of the wall during the summer solstice. This is a piece of sheer poetry.

At night, the building's terraces become screens for projected images. The first commissions for the images went to Northwest artist Bruce Hanson. You can see his work most easily in the moving star imagery on the second floor Terrace of Planetary Motion, above the museum's main entry along Bellevue Way. Hanson came to the attention of museum officials when he projected pictures onto the building's construction project in a guerrilla action to challenge whether the museum in its new incarnation would continue its former support of local artists. It does. And it will. BAM continues as the host of the Northwest Watercolor Society's annual exhibition each spring, and the Northwest Annual Exhibition, open to all Northwest artists, now slated as an autumn event, opening in September.

Bellevue lies at the heart of the Northwest technology boom, and many in BAM's audience are technocrats who care deeply about the intersections of art and technology. That interplay is reflected in both the building and its programming. Galleries with moveable walls are wired to allow the exhibition of art that uses cutting-edge technologies. Classrooms are wired to allow exploration of an ever-widening range of art techniques.

You don't even have to be enrolled to experience what this feels like. A virtual tour of the building on computer allows visitors to play with architectural concepts. An Explore Gallery is dedicated to high-tech, hands-on learning the kind of experience lab it wouldn't surprise you to find in a science museum. Visitors can do such things as create a 30-second art film.

The bottom line is that BAM aims to evoke creativity in everyone who comes through its doors. It is especially friendly to kids. Classes are tailored for kids down to age 4. One family class is for kids and parents together. Interpretive texts for exhibitions have a family guide geared to kids active exploring. Every afternoon, an Art Cart on the museum's ground floor offers visitors opportunities to make art connected with the exhibits.

Don't miss a visit. It's easy. The underground garage holds parking for 90. The Museum cafe, operated by Tully's, seats 50 indoors; 20 more outdoors under a glass awning.

All of this was made possible by a mix of public and private contributions. The City of Bellevue, which anted up $3 million for the new museum project, was its biggest contributor. King County contributed another $2.2 million. Local art patrons Jon and Mary Shirley were the largest private donors -- $2 million. Several local foundations each kicked in $1 million or more.

Douglas and the staff, who moved in last December, are still exploring all the possibilities of their new space. "I feel like I did when I was 16 years old and learning to drive a car, not quite sure of the parameters," Douglas says. "It will take us a while to figure it all out. The experiment is important, because especially with contemporary art, people need bridges in." The new Bellevue Art Museum reflects her vision that "The joy and power and creativity of art are not contained in paintings and sculpture. They lie in the eyes, hearts, hands and minds of artists and audiences." BAM. The name says it all.

DELORIS TARZAN AMENT, is a freelance writer about art, design, restaurants, and travel. She was Art Critic for The Seattle Times for over twenty years.

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