Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Tacoma Art Museum's Laura Fry

The Curator of Western American Art discusses the impact of TAM's new Haub Family Galleries expansion.

By Seth Sommerfeld November 11, 2014

Thomas Moran, Green River, Wyoming, 1907, oil on canvas, 20 × 28.5 in.

Laura Fry

Call it manifest destiny. Tacoma Art Museum further focuses its gaze on western expansion with the addition of the Haub Family Galleries. Opening this weekend, the new 16,000-square-foot wing increases the museum’s size by 32 percent and will house the Haub Family Collection of Western American Art, displaying a selection of 295 total works from masters like Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran, and Charles M. Russell. Tacoma Art Museum hosts the Go West Grand Opening day at the Haub Family Galleries on Saturday, November 15 beginning at 9:30am. Festivities include curator talks, art demonstrations, live music, and even stagecoach rides.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Laura Fry—Tacoma Art Museum's Haub Curator of Western American Art—about fact versus myth in western art, the importance of the collection to the region, and unappealingly named valleys.

What are the basics of the Haub Family Galleries expansion?

The Tacoma Art Museum announced a new gift from (German billionaires) Erivan and Helga Haub in July of 2012. The Haubs are donating 295 works of art of the American West to the museum. So to house that collection, we are about to open this new museum expansion with 16,000 square feet of new space, including about 10,000 square feet of gallery space. So it's just about doubling the size of the galleries. The architects are Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects in Seattle, and I think the design pairs really well with our existing building. We certainly echoed some of the design features in the existing building, which we think are very successful, while still expanding out and having a little bit of a different feel in the new space.

So whats the overall breadth of the Haub Family Collection of Western American Art?

There are 295 artworks, some of them are now an outright gift to the museum, the rest remain as promised gifts. And these works cover more than 200 years of art in the American West in a wide variety of styles. It's primarily painting and sculpture and includes artists working in the 1790s and goes all the way up to artists who are still alive and working today. It's got this really broad period represented and quite a broad range of styles in there too.

So how many of those works will be on display when the galleries open?

We've got 133 works in the opening exhibition, and all but six of those are outright gifts to the museum.

So what defines the art of the American West?

I like to keep a very broad definition. I like to think of art of the west as work that represents a sense of place for the western half of the country or somehow inspired by the western half of the United States. I count that as the Mississippi River and west, so a very large region and very diverse region. Which of course leads to all kinds of different work and all kinds of different artistic responses.

What do you see as the importance of having this collection in Tacoma?

So this is the first collection of Western American art to enter a museum in the Pacific Northwest. The closest similar museum collection would be either the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming or the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, neither one of which are close to here at all. I see it as providing a larger context for the art of the Northwest. Tacoma Art Museum already specializes in art of the Northwest; we've got a very strong collection that looks at this particular region and how the art here has developed. And I think this western collection, which covers a much broader geographic area, gives us a broader context. It allows us to look at other centers of art in the west. We have the story of Northwest art that developed here, but now we can also tell the story of art in New Mexico and the Southwest and how that parallels some of the developments in the Pacific Northwest. The Haub Collection does include some artists who were working in the Northwest in the 19th century, so we can have this longer chronological comparison to these 19th century artists who traveled here versus the modern artists that ended up making their careers here a hundred years after that. It just gives us a broader range of stories that we can tell with our collection.

What are your goals for the Tacoma Art Museum going forward as the Curator of Western American Art?

It's really exciting because this is a new collection. I'm the first person in this position and we are really establishing this collection here and there is not a precedent. I'd like to see this collection provide opportunities to make some observations of art of the west that haven't been made before. One of the ways we are starting out interpreting this collection is by seeking contemporary Native American voices to comment on some of these works. That’s particular germane here because there is such a strong Native American community in the Pacific Northwest. There are so many tribal communities here that are very active and very much part of culture today. So I think there are some interesting things we can do to look at this artwork in this location that might not be possible or as easily facilitated in a different location.

Are there through lines or themes that are striking that are more noticable when these hundreds of works are presented side-by-side?

Absolutely. One of the main themes that you see across this artwork is this idea of American identity and how the American West has played a part in how this country has seen itself as a whole. In works from the early 1800s we’ve got a couple of artists who were doing series of Native American portraits, and their inspiration at that point was to celebrate these individuals as something very distinct from Europe; to help distinguish the United States from Europe. And even when you come to some of the contemporary artists who are inspired by pop art and inspired by spaghetti western cinema they are still looking at the American West as this distinct place that is part of the American psyche and part of how this country identifies itself.

Another theme that you see through all of the artwork is this dichotomy between myth and reality. A lot of the history that we think we know about the American West is really based in fiction, a lot of it is based in pop culture. We saw that in a movie, that’s what you know about the West.

Like old western films.

Absolutely. And movies came out of 19th century dime novels and these wild west shows so there is a centuries old tradition of tall tales and this mythological history of this region. And in this artwork you see a lot about how some of this myth was created. You also see artists who are responding to the myth and perhaps exposing the myth. There is a lot of work that plays on that idea of what is real and what is invented and how we perceive these regions and why.

Do you have any favorite aspects or favorite works that stand out above the rest?

It's sort of like picking a favorite child. (Laughs) One of my favorite works, one of the works I find really compelling is a landscape of Death Valley from 1922. It’s Maynard Dixon's A Desert Valley. It's this abstracted view of the mountain wall coming into the Death Valley landscape. It has really bold bright colors and he reduces the landscape to sort of stripes and abstract patterns. It really conveys the sense of heat you would get there and it shows the landscape in this very modern view. I think it is a beautiful image without any backstory at all, which is part of why I like it, it is a much more abstracted image; it’s not a realist work. But it’s also changing the way people thought about some of the desert landscapes. Just 20 or 30 years before that, Death Valley was an appalling wasteland. People were writing about how it was this ugly place; it wasn't a place of beauty. And by the 1920s perceptions of some of these places in the west shifted so it was no longer the great American desert, it was now something to be celebrated. I think artists were part of shifting how we perceive the landscape, and I think that’s a really powerful story in this collection.

I mean, the name probably didn't help the initial perception that much either.

Oh, absolutely yes. (Laughs) It was called Death Valley. That doesn't exactly help, right?

Haub Family Galleries Opening
Nov 15 at 9:30am, Tacoma Art Museum, $10

John Nieto, Buffalo at Sunset, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 48 × 60 in.

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