Art attack

The next phase of the Tacoma renaissance is street-level hip and rising fast

It was a little past six o’clock on the third Thursday of December when the excitement became noticeable. As offices emptied and people started going home, others were heading back into town. There was an energy on Broadway along Antique Row. Sanford and Son, with its small galleries and large antiques, was crowded with people. The Helm Gallery, across the street and open just three months, was abuzz with activity. Inside, two local artists, Chris Sharp and Zachary Marvick, were greeting guests at the opening of their exhibitions. People were in the streets, and they were excited.

The story of the Tacoma renaissance begins and usually ends with the UWT campus, Union Station, and the new museums. Then people talk about what used to be. There used to be streetcars. There used to be department stores. Peoples at 11th and Pacific. Rhodes at 11th and Broadway. There used to be people on the street.

That same night in December, a new gallery opened on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in the middle of Hilltop. Many of the people who started on Broadway at the Helm opening, later went up the hill to check out another highly anticipated art space. They drove south past the increasingly hip Tempest Lounge, the iconic Johnson Candy Company, and the corner where Browne’s Star Grill once stood. In between Tacoma Tofu and a hair salon, in the middle of a one-story commercial building is the seemingly out-of-place Fulcrum Gallery.

Oliver Doriss debuted the small-footprint Fulcrum with Joe Miller’s “Lambscapes,” an installation involving steel sculptures, felted wool, and blown glass. Doriss is an increasingly well-known glassblower who now calls Tacoma home. He bought the 3,000-square-foot building last year to use as a workshop, warehouse, and studio. The front is retail space. His first—brief—idea was to rent that space out. But he wondered what kind of tenant would want to locate here in the middle of this mostly undiscovered block.

“I’d grow old waiting for someone to show up to do what I need to be doing,” said Doriss. “What needs to be happening here is I need to be opening a space on which the whole neighborhood can start to take off.”

Realizations like this seem to be leading to the next round of transformation in Tacoma. People are less interested in waiting for a benefactor, a big box retailer, or the government to show them a path to the future and are chasing their ideals instead.

Peter Lynn (who’s got a UPS alumna mom and a brother at the university) and Sean Alexander often talked about opening a gallery in Tacoma. Alexander, an artist and co-owner of the Helm, didn’t see any galleries in town where his art might be shown. Both Lynn and Alexander work at The Grand Cinema, Tacoma’s only art-house movie theater. As they walked downtown streets, they’d pass empty retail space and dream. One day, early in 2007, they decided it was time to do something.

The Helm’s first show, “The Kindness of Strangers,” opened in September 2007. It came together using a nontraditional method of curating: the Internet and social networking Web sites. Lynn and Alexander sent e-mail messages to artists, most of whom they’d never met, using MySpace and Flickr, asking if they’d want to be part of their first show. Ninety-seven artists from five continents submitted work. Many of the artists were fairly well known in art circles.

Daniel Blue, a local artist, poet, and entrepreneur, says, “The show was the best thing to ever come to Tacoma. It was amazing.”

Since that first show, the Helm has featured artists in three-week runs. Every third Thursday of the month reveals something new, and the crowds seem to grow larger each time.

The show that opened on February 21 featured Issei Watanabe, a Japanese-born artist now living in Tacoma. Paintings and sculptures in pop-art Technicolor and polished metal filled the gallery. In the back of the gallery, beneath glass, was a piece of popcorn—cast in bronze. After Tacoma, Watanabe’s work is heading up to Soil in Seattle.

Big-scale projects like the Museum of Glass and the Tacoma Art Museum anchored development downtown, but it’s the street-level art galleries, the School of the Arts, and the rising grass roots arts scene that seems to be moving Tacoma into the next phase of its renaissance. Fashion shows in old warehouse spaces and hip bars. Art installations featuring local artists in veterinary clinics, restaurants, and offices all over downtown. These little events are getting people away from their desks, computers, and homes. And, for the most part, it doesn’t seem to be about money. There aren’t business plans that map out future fortunes in these galleries. It’s about the art.

Derek Young is the founding editor of Exit133.com, a website facilitating urban planning, civic engagement, real estate, historic preservation, and the arts in Tacoma.