art // HIDE/SEEK : Tacoma Art Museum

In those with only a cursory knowledge of the South Sound, you’ll find the usual prevailing stereotype that Tacoma plays a (pungent) second fiddle to Seattle and Portland—that culturally, it’s nothing more than a slowdown on the I-5 corridor. Thank goodness for those who believe otherwise, for those who know our progressively-minded city has much more going than sometimes meets the eye. Great art and cultural dialogue and emerging new identities bubble just below the surface. Tucked away in plain sight.

Enter the rich and revolutionary exhibition “HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” into the city’s artistic landscape. That’s right—you won’t find it occupying the revered sleekness of LACMA or SFMOMA. You’ll find it here at Tacoma Art Museum—at least until June 10th.

Originally premiering at the Smithsonian in 2010, HIDE/SEEK really was “the first major exhibition of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender themes in a major American museum since the late 1980′s and early nineties,” notes TAM curator Rock Hushka, who for years has been a driving force behind acquiring “meatier” and more unconventional projects for TAM’s exhibition spaces.

From the genteel oils of John Singer Sargent to the gorgeous pink and red riot of Andy Warhol, Hide/Seek takes viewers on a 150-year-old exploration through the hearts and minds of art’s most dazzling luminaries, with equally compelling insight into their respective eras.

Upon its debut in 2010, the show drew wild acclaim for its keen and beautiful depiction of both universal and very personal themes—those intersecting ribbons of sexuality and identity, the inner wars we wage over who we are and how we portray ourselves to others.

It also drew instant ire from a conservative group that accused the Smithsonian of offending Christians and families with disrespectful content. David Wojnaworicz’s multi-media piece “A Fire in My Belly”—which depicts ants crawling over a crucified Jesus—was quietly removed from the exhibition. Uproar ensued.

“That act is censorship, and that is not an American value, it’s not an American ideal,” says Hushka. “We have freedom of speech—we have freedom of expression—at the very core of our nation’s founding. And so the museum community, the artist’s community—they all rallied to support the National Portrait Gallery and return David’s voice to the exhibition and the national dialogue.”

Because of this turn of events, TAM Executive Director Stephanie Sebich had been at a meeting of the American Museum Art Directors’ Conference when she had some enlightening conversations with colleagues about the show. Meanwhile, Hushka had been working with Hide/Seek organizer Jonathan Katz for the last few years on an upcoming exhibit called “Art, AIDS, America.” Katz, of course, “knew what was happening on the inside (with HIDE/SEEK.)”

Sebich asked Hushka if he thought they could pull it off.

“We started asking questions, we started calling colleagues and directors to ask if they would extend their loan to Tacoma.”

It was a bumpy road with all manner of complications—”I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to borrow a Georgia O’Keefe painting, but it’s not a simple business”—but the pieces fell ever so carefully into place, and by March of 2012, Hide/Seek debuted for the very first time on the West Coast. In Tacoma.

Given the recent watershed legislation coming out of Olympia, those proverbial stars couldn’t have been more keenly aligned.

“The exhibition is relevant particularly here in WA state because of the new Marriage Equality Bill,” says Huska, “And to have an exhibition so topical and so timely, but that includes 150 years of art—is a really fascinating thing; it reminds us that art does speak to our day to day existence in many wonderful ways.”

And the local response?

“It’s been really wonderful,” says Hushka.

“People have been so generous with their thanks and their sense that this is a place to see themselves. The feedback has been astonishing… I mean, this is an incredible exhibition, from Thomas Eakins to Georgia O’Keefe to Nan Goldin to Felix Gonzalez-Torres. It’s sort of like a daydream being here,” he gushes. “I’ve studied these folks for 27 years. To have them all in one place, it’s like a little mini history lesson.”

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HIDE/SEEK exhibition by
Tacoma Art Museum

Oceanviews by
Atlas Sound

shot + edited by
The Art Dept.

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