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Rebirth of a city

Peter Serko documents how art has helped build Tacoma

Howard Ben Tre’s “Water Forest,” photographed by Peter Serko

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Peter Serko's photography exhibition at the Museum of Glass artistically documents the brief history of the museum since 2006. It also shows different aspects of the building, and of the adjacent Chihuly Bridge of Glass, taken during different times of day throughout the seasons. Plus there's a video montage featuring pictures by other local photographers.

While putting the exhibition together, Serko discovered some interesting facts about the museum.

"Former Tacoma mayor Karen Vialle told me how controversial the purchase of the land where MOG sits was and how it subsequently led to her reelection defeat," Serko says. "I discovered that at various stages many different groups and individuals came forward to put all the pieces together, often with great difficulty and considerable controversy." Among those people was Dayton Knipher, a longtime local artist who at the time was known by the name Karen Knipher.

Vialle, now running for the Tacoma School Board, says that while supporting the Museum of Glass may not have single-handedly caused her defeat when seeking reelection as Tacoma's mayor in 1993, but it was certainly a major contributing factor.

Burlington Northern owned the land the museum sits on, and Vialle recalls purchasing the land for the museum was very controversial.

"People thought it was a waste of money," Vialle says. "The crime rate was really high at the time and people thought the money should be spent on hiring law enforcement, but the money used to purchase the land was capital bond funds that could not be used to hire police."

Vialle says she spearheaded the move to purchase the land "and would do it again."

"History has proven it was a wise thing to do," she says. "Any city that has a beautiful waterfront like that, it's a real asset."

Vialle says the museum has been "a great tourism draw for the city."

Locating MOG on that waterfront property also contributed to the renovation of the old Albert Mills building, which houses the very successful William Traver Gallery. New apartment complexes and retail outlets on the other side of MOG have also contributed to the city.

"A major thrust during my term was the impact of the arts on the economy," she says. "We saw arts as a major form of economic development."

As further evidence, Vialle points to the renovated Theater District.

Serko says he hopes his show will prove to be an acknowledgement that art really has changed the city, and that the people, such as Vialle and Knipher, who stuck their necks out were right. He hopes the exhibit will show that "this has been a wonderful thing for Tacoma. The Museum District has changed Tacoma for the good and in time I am certain it will be a thriving area for artists of all levels."

A stroll along Dock Street, through the Theater District or along the section of Pacific Avenue that's home to Tacoma Art Museum, the University of Washington Tacoma, Washington State History Museum and Union Station should be enough to convince any skeptic that the arts are vital, not only to economic development but to the very life of the city.

Knipher recalls that directly prior to MOG's opening (1998-2002 particularly), "There was a lot of focus on bringing folks back downtown and there was a grassroots effort on the part of a lot of people to make that happen."

She was part of that effort. Knipher was also secretary of The Tacoma Architectural Foundation, which focused efforts on saving historic buildings. "One of the strategies to revitalize downtown Tacoma was to use art," she recalls.

One of The Tacoma Architectural Foundation first projects on this front was bringing in artist Iole Alessandrini to create a light installation called "Winter, Season of Light."  Knipher points out that the installation "was an amazing and miraculous success" and it ultimately inspired the renovation of that whole part of town.

"Truth be known, it was both art and historic preservation that truly turned things around," Knipher says.

Serko says that while researching for his show he got to look at lots of old images of Tacoma and realized how important art has been to the changes in the area. Hopefully the evidence of all this development will convince those with their hands on the money that the arts are vital to the economic health of the city.

Serko's exhibition at MOG is called Transformation: Art Changes a City. It runs through Jan. 8.

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