When the Cheney Cowles Museum quietly closed its doors for renovation two years ago, it was hard to imagine the profound transformation that was about to take place. In the public's perception, the changes, at first, were small. The museum building was no longer available for school field trips or the occasional gallery walk. Artfest, traditionally held on museum grounds, was moved to a park four blocks away. An apartment building at the edge of Browne's Addition seemed to disappear overnight.
But within recent months, the changes have become much more striking. Where once stood a single building, now there are two. An amphitheater faces north toward Riverside Avenue. The larger and newer of the two buildings -- for months little more than three levels of concrete and steel columns -- is now beautifully fleshed out with glass panels and wood ceilings.
After two years and a $28 million renovation project, the museum -- now called the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC) -- is finally ready. When it opens on Wednesday, Dec. 5, visitors will find a vastly expanded new facility that effectively redefines Spokane's role as an arts-friendly community.
"It's going to blow people away," says Joyce Cameron, the museum's director of development and communications. "People are going to see something that they haven't seen the museum do before."
While the vaulted wooden roof shelters new gallery spaces, beautiful wall and floor colors and appealing interactive technologies, to call this a museum makeover seems trite, especially given the obvious deliberation that went into each step of the project. Somehow, the committees, the construction crews, the board of directors and the museum staff have undertaken a staggeringly ambitious project: take an outdated, somewhat stagnant local museum and make it a state-of-the-art facility encompassing culture, history and the visual arts.
In envisioning what the new museum would be, planners first needed to identify who they were designing the museum for. One of the first things visitors will notice about the museum is its friendly, approachable demeanor, which is further underscored by the museum's advertising campaign.
"We're as much Gilligan as we are Thurston Howell the Third. We really are," Cameron says, quoting from one of their new slogans. The slogans, which also include "Dom Perignon? Sure, invite him too," position the museum as sophisticated and witty, but with a down-to-earth accessibility.
"There's 20 percent of the population that's going to come to this museum regardless. They don't care what kind of museum we're going to build; they're going to be here, because they're regular museum-goers. We knew we didn't need to worry about this group," Cameron explains. "Then there's another 20 percent of the population that probably never will come to the museum. They don't like them, or it's not something that they would do. That 20 percent was not a group that we really needed to focus on, either."
The museum planners turned to the remaining 60 percent, which consisted of people who liked the idea of museums but were not regular visitors.
"We needed to make this museum a destination, a place where people might want to spend an entire day. And that involved getting past most people's idea of a museum, which is often art-on-a-wall," she says. "And we do have one exhibit that is like that, but the other three and the orientation exhibit are very different. They're high tech, they're interactive and they're attractive to people of all ages."
While the museum hopes to attract Spokanites, it also has a lot to offer in terms of civic identity.
"I think this museum is really going to give people in Spokane a sense of place, an understanding of the historical underpinnings of our society, and I think it's going to have a broad public appeal," says the MAC's CEO, Bruce Eldredge. "It's also going to be an economic engine, which is a good thing because we've got some tough goals and hard targets to meet -- for instance, getting 150,000 people through the door this first year."
Fortunately, the museum is not relying solely on local visitors to meet those goals.
"The museum is going to be a major cultural entity," says Eldredge. "It's one of the top 200-250 museums in the United States, which makes it a significant destination for both national and international travelers."
Even the museum's opening exhibits are designed to draw the widest variety of people possible during its crucial first year.
"One of the reasons we're opening with the 'Hometowns' exhibit is to get visitors from those smaller towns surrounding Spokane. That's really what's going to sustain us here," says Cameron.
"I think I've identified every agricultural publication on a southbound radius," laughs Yvonne Lopez-Morton, marketing director for the MAC. "In fact, the National Rural Cooperative Association, based in Washington, D.C., is publishing two articles on us because of the significance of that rural tie to the hometowns exhibit. It's going to be about who people are, making people feel welcome, and having them walk through the door and see themselves in some way."
Blending old and new is crucial to the museum's new mission as well. In addition to the MAC's extensive exhibit of the Plateau tribes and the installation of a sacred ceremonial room, the landscaping also honors the mixed cultural heritage of the museum's site.
"On the south side, everything will reflect what Browne's Addition is like, with the trees and sidewalks and familiar scenery," says Cameron. "What's unique on the north side, is that the grounds will reflect that this was an important spot for American Indians, so we'll bring back all the indigenous plants that were used for medicine, ceremonies and meetings."
While the old museum often had exhibits that stayed up long past their prime, the new one will keep things moving on a regular basis. And the museum's first year is an important proving ground in attracting major new shows.
"We're looking down the road at some of our future exhibits, and we have to prove ourselves now in a number of ways," says Cameron. "We need to prove that we can bring the people through the doors, that our humidity and air conditioning are correct and that we've got all of the security controls in place.
"But once we've done that," she adds, "we can start bringing in a Van Gogh or some of the big-name touring exhibits. We need to prove ourselves first, but once we've done that, we'll be able to do some really exciting things."