Creatively focused, eco-obsessed, possessing an urban sensibility and locavore leanings, beautiful without being braggy—the new Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA) might well be considered the embodiment of the island community itself. And just as the residents prefer the island’s laidback vibe to Seattle’s comparative bustle, BIMA supporters and staff have no intention of trying to compete with mainland art institutions, such as Seattle Art Museum. Instead, the focus is on contemporary work by artists from the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas and the western Puget Sound region.
Founding board member Cynthia Sears, who moved to Bainbridge from Los Angeles in the late 1980s and first began talking up the idea of building an art museum there in the early ’90s, says BIMA is perfectly content with being (as an actor friend of hers put it) “off Broadway.” “Not just smaller, but more regional,” Sears explains. “Less about big productions and famous work than about excellence of craft and helping newcomers get a foot in the door.”
That door, by the way, is made from sustainable FSC-certified wood (and the foot is likely shod in a Keen athletic sandal). The new building, which came together thanks to a Bainbridge-based collaboration—The Island Gateway developers, Coates Design architects and PHC Construction—and a largely locally funded $15.6 million capital campaign, is anticipating LEED Gold certification. When that status becomes official, it will be the first art museum in the state (and one of only a few nationwide) to achieve such green street cred.
The building is first and foremost inviting, thanks to a striking curve of tall windows that sweeps visitors toward the entrance. This translucency is intentional—people inside the museum can see their community going about its business outside, and people outside can see visitors going about the gallery within (and thereby feel a vicarious connection with local art). Indeed, the emphasis of the structure is not so much on the photovoltaic array, the geothermal heating and cooling or the low-flow toilets (and waterless urinals!), but on showcasing the thriving—but largely unsung—regional artist community.
Part of Sears’ initial motivation was the question “If this is such an ‘artists’ haven’ (as the guide books told me), why wasn’t there a place where local art was on exhibit for the public?” While acknowledging the value of art shows at smaller, commercial galleries in the area, she contends, “A community that cares about art needs an art museum the same way a community that cares about literacy needs a public library—no matter how many bookstores might be nearby.”
One of the opening exhibits is of work by Bainbridge Island artist and children’s book illustrator Barbara Helen Berger, who agrees with Sears, “Art doesn’t have to be remote.” As for the tone her inaugural exhibit sets for the museum, she speculates, “My show may convey part of the museum’s aim: to be inviting and welcoming for everyone, including children and families.”
Greg Robinson, BIMA’s executive director and curator, points out that one of the significant local benefits of the museum is serving kids in the region—for whom taking a field trip to Seattle can be prohibitively complicated and expensive. “Having an art museum here increases the accessible and affordable options for schools in the Kitsap area,” he says. Sears adds that one of the boons of not charging an entrance fee is that it encourages people of all ages to stop by casually, making the viewing of art a regular part of everyday life. “I want kids and their families to feel comfortable just dropping in…to refresh their eyes and recharge their batteries,” she says.
Port Townsend–based sculptor Margie McDonald also has work in the first BIMA show, in the commanding Beacon Gallery, an aptly named space fronted by a two-story bank of windows that faces the ferry terminal and stands as a guidepost for disembarking passengers. Her “millipede-like” piece—a 30-foot long underwater scene made with recycled copper, yacht rigging wire and salmon trolling wire—will hang in the window. “Seattle is tough for someone like me who doesn’t want to go to the big city very much,” McDonald says. “I think there’s some excitement here in Port Townsend that this is ‘our museum.’ BIMA feels like it’s on ‘our side’ of the water.”
Sears believes the regional focus will foster what she calls the “OMG factor,” meaning the reaction, “OMG, that’s from here?” She hopes that, as a result, hometown visitors will support “their own” with even more vigor. “This is our art equivalent to the ‘eat locally’ movement,” she says.
Robinson is “slowly and deliberately” expanding BIMA’s permanent collection in line with the goal of being “an incubator and a launching pad for emerging local artists.” (Sears notes, “We are on record as having promised our donors that if most of the artists we exhibit have not achieved national—or world!—recognition in 50 years, we will be happy to give them their money back.”) But Robinson emphasizes that rather than dictating a perspective, he and his team are looking to the artists to reveal what it means to live in the region. “We’re not coming in as the experts,” he says, “we’re coming in as discoverers. We’re exploring stories that haven’t been told yet.”