Five years ago, Bellevue's largest museum was reborn with a new focus -- art, craft and design rather than fine art. Finding a niche and excelling at it appears to be paying off.
Attendance continues to climb at the Bellevue Arts Museum, and more than 400 people packed the place for an August party kicking off a new exhibition. A campaign to raise $3 million in pledges by year's end was two thirds of the way there in June.
"The community told us to return to the arts, and we did," said Mark Crawford, executive director and CEO of the striking red and silver building on Bellevue Way downtown. Meeting with stakeholders before reopening continues to pay dividends, he said.
Provocative exhibitions that dance across the blurry line between craft and fine art help. People who thought an institution dedicated to arts and crafts would be little more than a year-round country-fair booth featuring tea cozies and duck decoys now know better.
Shows at the museum today include "Clay Throwdown!," a juried exhibition featuring a broad range of ceramic works from more than 30 top Northwest artists; "Into the Surface" -- mural-like glass engravings by April Surgent; and "Aesthetic Engineering: The Imagination Cycle" -- large-scale sculptures by Ginny Ruffner in which she mixes glass, steel and bronze to create explosive flowers, massive leaves and twisted growing vines. works at the museum
In January 2008, the Seattle P-I's art critic Regina Hackett was so moved by provocative exhibitions at the institution that she began a review "Note to self, stop ignoring the Bellevue Arts Museum."
Success for the museum is success for the City of Bellevue, which spurred more giving with a $2 million grant in 2007. As a major cultural institution that offers free community space in its lobby and a host of educational programming, the museum "gives back to the city every single day," said Mary Pat Byrne, arts specialist for the city.
The bubbly atmosphere on the roof the evening of Aug. 28, during the opening for "Clay Throwdown" could hardly have been envisioned when the Bellevue Art Museum abruptly closed its doors in September 2003.
According to newspaper reports, the museum without the "s" in its name struggled from the day it opened in a new building in 2001. While a host of problems could be identified, including mismanagement and a poor economy, the old BAM's vague mission was a genuine albatross.
Before board members tried to resuscitate the museum, they met with community leaders and donors to find out what they wanted in a museum here. After sounding out hundreds of stakeholders, the board decided to capitalize on Bellevue's past as a crafts-based art center. After all, the museum was first established in 1975 in a schoolhouse, as an outgrowth of the arts and crafts fair that draws hundreds of thousands to Bellevue every summer.
While money was still being raised for the institution's new incarnation, Michael Monroe, formerly chief curator of the Smithsonian Institute's Renwick Gallery of American Craft, was named director and chief curator. The cubist building New York architect Steven Holl had designed was revamped inside to make it a better exhibition space.
The Bellevue Arts Museum opened in June 2005 with Garth Clark's traveling show, "The Artful Teapot," featuring the best in contemporary pots.
Monroe's reputation enabled him to raise funds from supporters across the country while bringing in shows from top names in craft. He brought in a curator, Stefano Catalani, who added some edginess with exhibitions that featured crafts that explored ideas while also displaying exquisite workmanship.
Mark Crawford, a veteran at managing theatrical organizations, was hired on an interim basis in October 2008 to mind the museum's bottom line. He was hired permanently in May 2009. When Monroe retired in February, the leadership transition was smooth, with Catalani taking over the art side as director of curatorial affairs.
Byrne, with the city, is not surprised the museum is achieving success. She credits the museum with sound management and an artistic vision that "resonates with the community."
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