Kelly O
Kelly O

I was standing outside Dale Chihuly's private new vanity museum, surrounded by swarms of unusually tan people, thinking about the first time I'd ever seen his work. One of the side effects of spending years as an art critic in Tacoma and Seattle is that you have to become sort of a Chihuly expert. When I came across it at the Tacoma Art Museum in 1999, I had never heard of him before, and I was leaning in to get a better look at the baubles along a wall when I smacked my head into a glass display case. Loudly. The case was so pristine I hadn't even seen it. It's not just the work that can be painful to look at, but the invisible issues that surround the work.

While Chihuly has garnered legions of fans (some tan) and legions of haters (the people who once organized a "Smash a Chihuly" party, say), very little actual discernment is applied to his works. Part of this is his fault. Normal museums are arbiters—literally staffed with tastemakers—but Chihuly's museum is staffed with people who work directly for him. If his museum is tasteless, that is by design. He decides how the art looks and how it is talked about by tour guides. He also owns his own press, which makes his books; other artists have catalogs published by institutions like the Getty, with essays by critics and scholars. He has built a nearly omnipotent promotions machine. It doesn't matter what anybody says. He runs the show.

There are plenty of vanity museums, yes, but they're typically reserved for the dead.

And yet Chihuly has never been typical. He is a working-class Tacoma boy turned millionaire art machine. His stuff sells for big money. It can be popular. One stand-alone sculpture at Chihuly Garden and Glass, a pointy cactuslike tower made of lime-colored reeds that sits in the garden outside, somewhat visible to passersby who don't pay the $19 admission fee, has a larger twin at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. People loved it so much that regular folks—including schoolchildren—raised more than $1 million to keep it there permanently. Again, this is unusual: Moneyed donors usually cough up money for acquisitions, not the ragtag public.

I receive a text as I'm writing this—I'm not making this up—with a picture of two garish spheres of blobbily nested glass in a case with a plaque. "Hospital? Office tower? Courthouse?" I text back, knowing immediately it is a Chihuly, wondering where it has been spotted. They are everywhere, and this is something that only people from Seattle (and Tacoma) notice. A California airport this time, it turns out. Then, "The plaque describes him as very important."

Important why? Curators and historians of art will tell you that Chihuly "put glass art on the map!" This is exactly what Greg Bell, who made his name as a curator at Tacoma Art Museum and has graduated to become Paul Allen's private curator, said to me at the grand gala opening. Bell is a witty and pragmatic man, an artist himself and a perfect Northwest type. (His own art is often made of the archetypically Northwest material of wood.) This "glass on the map" thing sounds specious at first, because glass is an insensate material, not a cause to champion. But if you care about art, you have to admit a deeper point, too: Art history is a series of doors opening to allow in previously excluded, underdog materials, and those materials end up reformulating the possibilities of what art can be. Glass is still not a mainstream medium, but it has shed most of its stigma, in part thanks to the idyllic Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, which Chihuly founded in 1971. Every summer, leading artists who don't have any prior commitment to glass make pilgrimages to study there—to see what glass might offer their ideas. (It's also a lab where glass artists freely experiment, grow, and innovate, and there's a program for training glass craftpersons; glass is most often made in teams.)

And let's not lie: You're going to find yourself at this new museum at some point. Chihuly Garden and Glass has already called itself "a permanent addition" to Seattle Center, even though its lease says it's temporary. This is ours now.

Remember when new museums were the norm around here? When everybody was expanding or renovating or building anew? In those days, you often talked about the architecture first, so let's start there: At Chihuly Garden and Glass, the architects (Owen Richards Architects) should have asked for anonymity. They were retrofitting a crappy old warehouse and dolling it up with an open-sided greenhouse that makes you long desperately for the grand-dame Victorian greenhouse at Volunteer Park Conservatory (which is in danger of closing but could be rescued for a measly few million dollars—now, supporting that would be a gift to the city of Seattle). The architecture of Chihuly Garden and Glass is a big Oh, well.

As far as interior spaces, the galleries are dungeons. They have no windows, the ceilings press downward, and the walls are black. And they're small. Part of the reason for the success of Mille Fiori, Chihuly's awesomely, madly excessive installation at Tacoma Art Museum in 2003, was its size. It looked like an enormous tropical swamp in bloom set on a huge platform of black reflective glass, and it sat in what was then the largest museum gallery in the entire Northwest, so broad and with ceilings so high that a sloop could set off in it. The version of Mille Fiori at Chihuly Garden and Glass is downsized and less dense, with fewer pieces of glass. It's a malnourished cousin. Chihuly needs scale and excess. Chihuly Garden and Glass, as former Seattle Art Museum director Derrick Cartwright remarked as he was leaving the gala opening, "is surprisingly restrained." Restrained is not a good thing for Chihuly's work. Take away the gaudiness and there's little left.

People kept asking, "Is this new work?" The answer is yes and no. It's meant to be a review of what he's already made. Given the way Chihuly art works, the better question would be "Are there any new visual ideas here?" The promenade of rooms chronicles his series and packages over the years: Glass Forest, Northwest Room, Sealife Room, Persian Ceiling, Mille Fiori, Ikebana and Float Boat, Chandeliers, Macchia Forest, Glasshouse, and Garden. The ideas are old. But the actual glass is most likely a combination of archival pieces—Chihuly has acres of storage—and newly blown parts added to the inventory.

The one truly new visual idea in the museum is that he's fully outing himself as a grand master hoarder. He collects things. And his collections of Americana—everything from vintage Edward Curtis photographs to Pendleton blankets to toy train cars to bottle openers to lawn sculptures—are terrific. They're a little creepy in their excess, but even that is interesting (though I'm not sure it was necessary to hang cases of hundreds of bottle openers on the walls of the men's and women's restrooms).

I first saw Chihuly's collections years ago, when I was invited into one of his Tacoma warehouses. It was some Willy Wonka shit in there. The walls went higher than I could see (or at least that's how my imagination remembers them), where objects in every shape and color were thematically lined up. It was a museum that nobody was seeing. After that, I used to lie awake at night just thinking what wonders you'd see if you lifted the tops off of the old manufacturing buildings he'd bought downtown. What's at Seattle Center is just a tiny taste of this wonderland. The first glimpse of it is in the Northwest Room, where the walls are lined with Curtis photographs and the brilliant designs of rows and rows of Pendleton blankets, along with early Chihuly baskets and some of the woven Northwest Native American baskets that inspired them.

The trouble here is that this room, again, is a paltry version of an exhibition called Dale Chihuly's Northwest that took place in the summer of 2011 at Tacoma Art Museum (which was itself a reference to a room at Chihuly's Seattle home studio, the Boathouse). The TAM exhibition was spectacular, full of baskets borrowed from the nearby Washington State History Museum, and with several great examples of Chihuly's own early glass baskets from TAM's collection. At Chihuly Garden and Glass, I had to wonder whether the Chihuly baskets were second-rate early pieces that hadn't sold and were lying around, or knockoffs recently made, because they were bland and repetitive—while Chihuly's best early baskets are terrific. When I brought this up at the gala, a curator said he'd heard Chihuly had trouble getting enough of his own inventory for this museum. So much of it has been sold or given to collectors and museums already. Chihuly Garden and Glass is not the definitive Chihuly experience, despite the sales pitch.

Where the private collections of Americana come into their own is in the museum's cafe. Each table contains its own display case you look down into right underneath your plates and silverware. The reservations desk is about to get lots of requests; people were already picking favorites. There are transistor radios and inkwells and citrus juicers and shaving brushes and dogs made of metal and Christmas ornaments and antique play trailers and boats and cars. I like the bottles shaped like people and shoes made of mercury glass, but it was hard to pick. The charm is real. So is the heavy dollop of nostalgia. I hope it won't be like the Space Needle's sky-high restaurant, where the food is overpriced and undergood because the view brings in the money. Here, you gaze into the horizon of mid-century America. (Too bad about the Chihuly paintings on the walls. His effluvic messes are rumored to be made by broom, which splatters paint on his sneakers, and then he distributes the sneakers.)

The rest of the art experiences are a mixed bag. The Macchia Forest comes closest to being an immersive, transporting environment. It's a richer, bigger, more glowing presentation of Chihuly's big, thin-walled, spotted bowls than I've ever seen. The Macchias—the title is Italian for "spot"—sit proudly on their pedestals, each one like a peacock on fire. Ikebana and Float Boat is sort of like Chihuly's version of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride. It's funny seeing all that colored glass treasure crammed into little boats that rest on a sea of black reflective glass, like some Faustian bargain is the only thing keeping them from sinking under all the glassy weight.

The Persian Ceiling is depressing if you've seen the outdoor version on the Chihuly Bridge of Glass in Tacoma, where the sun—or the haunting gray Northwest sky—illuminates the glass with all the aliveness of the sky itself. Here, the ceiling of dully artificially lit glass is intersected by a grid of overweening wooden beams that segment the view. His Bellagio ceiling in Las Vegas is another comparison point that makes this one just look sad: At the Bellagio, the lighting is artificial (of course! It's Vegas!), but the glass is uncontained and instead spilling out above your head as though it's going to crush you at any second. It's fantastic and awful all at once: That's the best of Chihuly.

The orangey-red anemones that soar in a spiral pattern in the air of the Glasshouse are like the Monarch Window at Tacoma's Union Station released into three dimensions. It's a nice adaptation, setting those butterflies flying. The earliest piece and first gallery you encounter, Glass Forest, is a curious outer-spacey corner involving neon. The Garden outdoors has some clever landscaping moves and some heinous color clashes; it varies. When you're in the Sealife Room and you see a greasy-whitish octopus that looks like a testicle that has exploded its semen, you're not crazy. That's what's there.

Dale Chihuly is going to be 71 years old in September. His father, George, was a butcher who became a traveling union organizer. After he died suddenly at age 51 of a heart attack (caused in part by grief after Dale's only brother was killed in a military training accident one year before), George left some debt, so Dale's mother, Viola, went to work as a barmaid at the Parkway Tavern in Tacoma. Dale worked for the railroad, then on the assembly line at the Hygrade meatpacking plant.

If Chihuly's art and career are about longing and ambition, they're also about class.We often talk around this when we talk about Chihuly, even as we painfully bump our heads against the issue.

Which brings me back to the tan people in the garden. They'd bought expensive tickets to be there. Most of them there were die-hard supporters. These are the people who probably have Chihuly glass in their homes. Having a tan is a funny thing in Seattle. It makes you look like this is not your habitat. Or maybe you've just returned from somewhere brighter? Or you're prematurely ready to go? A tanned person in Seattle in May is flaunting mobility. Maybe you could say a tan here is a sign of wealth in motion, not stable wealth, not family money—maybe it's a sign of being nouveau riche.

Chihuly gets a lot of disdain for the style of his wealth, but all art museums rest on wealth. It's just usually more camouflaged. Chihuly, who is new to wealth, sells art to people new to wealth. He's a Tacoman with his own museum in Seattle. And it's full of art made of glass, a derided, minor material. Take that, historical hierarchy. Though Chihuly's vanity museum is in Seattle, it is not of Seattle. He put it there by hook or by crook. He is a product not only of a working-class family, but of a working-class city. Why hide your upward mobility with good taste when you've made it so far flying in the face of those who excluded you?

What I can appreciate in Chihuly's career, in his aesthetic, and in his tanned gala is how his story reveals something very human about striving to be recognized. Chihuly Garden and Glass is a naked chest of booty. Its ambition, pride, and lust are conspicuous. (Kids won't see any of this, but keen adults will, and that's how it should be—kids will love this place, by the way.) Naked climbing might be off-putting to the comfortably middle-class, and it probably hits too close to home for those with family money. But as the class gap widens and there's less of a middle, it might make sense to ask what Chihuly's treasure chest looks like to those who are truly struggling in a society where vast and growing inequality is the rule. Maybe, for increasing numbers of people, the only way to see even middling, ostentatious wealth like Chihuly's (after all, he's not Paul Allen or Bill Gates) is as a wild—and beautiful—fantasy. recommended