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Ready for its closeup: Work wrapping up on new downtown art museum

Construction workers with PHC construction carefully install the first pane of glass in the “Beacon” at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. - Richard D. Oxley / Bainbridge Island Review
Construction workers with PHC construction carefully install the first pane of glass in the “Beacon” at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.
— image credit: Richard D. Oxley / Bainbridge Island Review

It was a sight to see for the select few aware of its significance.

Eyes were locked and pictures were taken as the first pane of glass was installed in the “Beacon” at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.

“It’s special glass; the shapes are challenging,” said island architect Matthew Coates. “The wall tilts out.”

The Beacon is the tall stretch of glass windows that reaches out toward the corner of Winslow Way and Highway 305. It is the main attraction for passersby; an imposing, transparent tower of windows providing a first impression of the museum.

“It will be entirely glass, well-lit, and it will welcome people to this corner as they arrive from the ferry,” said Renate Raymond, the museum’s development and marketing director.

“It’s a beacon to the island,” she added.

Raymond has been in charge of fundraising for the museum. So far the museum has matched a $1.5 million gift. It still needs to raise $1.2 million before opening in June.

Coates and Raymond provided the Review a tour of the museum amid the heavy sounds of saws and hammers working steadily toward the grand opening.

For months the corner of Highway 305 and Winslow Way has been a skeletal frame. But now — with plywood, insulation and lots of glass — the museum has begun to take form.

And one thing is for certain: It sure looks good in some Levis.

“The Levis Strauss Foundation put together a big pool of money to do insulation for new buildings, and we received a portion of that,” Raymond said.

But it was more than just money. Levis provided insulation made from old jeans.

“It’s recycled cotton, basically. It’s been reconstituted,” Coates noted.

The insulation mainly serves as a sound barrier between rooms, and is far safer than the fiberglass material commonly seen inside walls.

“It’s glass fibers; it can get into your lungs. This stuff is very safe,” Coates said.

But blue jeans are a small part of the museum’s emerging wardrobe. With walls going up, it is easy to see what Coates has envisioned on paper.

From what will soon be the main entrance, one can easily imagine a front desk that will be manned by volunteers. From there, visitors will flow into an orientation room anchored by a donor wall. Volunteer docents will meet visitors and take them through the museum’s galleries.

Before they leave, patrons can visit the gift shop or the cafe. The cafe also leads to the finished auditorium that has already been widely used by islanders.

There are four galleries. A permanent collection will cycle through the museum’s own archive on the first floor. A youth gallery will also be located on the ground level.

Near the front entrance is the Grand Lobby, which boasts an impressive stairway that arches across a wall of windows that can now be seen from Winslow Way.

“Aside from the galleries, this space is probably one of the most important spaces in the museum,” Coates said. “It takes you up to the second floor but also lets you experience this glass wall as you go up. You can also see it from the outside, so as a passerby, you will see people going up the stairs. It really activates the space.”

The windows flood the interior with light. Coates has designed the building so that natural light is utilized efficiently.

“Most museums are all enclosed because you want to control the light. You don’t want natural light damaging artwork,” Coates said.

“The reality though is that on this corner it is undesirable to have a building entirely closed in.”

“We wanted to create a building that was transparent but also could handle sensitive artwork at the same time,” he said.

The Beacon gallery is one of two on the second floor and is part of the feature that shares its name. It serves as the entrance to a gallery that will host traveling works of art.

The traveling gallery has yet to be named officially. It is entirely enclosed and climate controlled. The walls allow natural light from the Grand Lobby in from below, while sky lights pour in diffused light from above.

The museum is aiming for a “green” gold certification so the natural light also benefits the building by cutting down on lighting costs. Geothermal wells were also drilled underneath the building to augment the heating system.

A portion of the roof will also be a rooftop garden.

It is easy to see Coates’ and Raymond’s excitement as the museum finally starts to resemble itself. It is merely five months until the opening when islanders can see for themselves, but Coates hopes that the building won’t be the star attraction at that time.

“It’s not intended to be an attention-getting building, but a thoughtful and elegant background to the artwork itself,” Coates said. “It’s more of a frame.”

“I intended to create a vehicle for experiencing art in multiple ways, but realizing that the building itself will become an institution,” he said. “It’s a community asset.”

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