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New Chihuly glass garden shines under Seattle's Space Needle

With admission prices up to $19, going to the new Chihuly Garden and Glass at the Seattle Center might be an expensive way to see art by the iconic Tacoma-born glass artist that you can see in Tacoma for free.

But the new exhibit space opening today at the Seattle Center does offer tourists and residents a sleekly presented overview of Dale Chihuly’s career in one impressive experience. The exhibition has been nine months in the making, and revamps the former Fun Forest area below the Space Needle just in time for the center’s 50th anniversary.

“It (represents) almost 50 years of Dale’s work,” said exhibition CEO Michelle Bufano. “I hope people walk away with an understanding of how significant his work is, and who he is as an artist. It’s so comprehensive.”

The 70-year-old artist, meanwhile, wants “people to be overwhelmed with light and color in a way they have never experienced.”

The exhibition is paid for and managed by Center Art LLC, which is owned by the Wright family who also own the Space Needle Corp. It holds a long-term lease from the City of Seattle for the 32,000 square feet of space. The Chihuly Studio contributed the 10 indoor and outdoor galleries’ worth of glass art. Bufano said they’re expecting about 400,000 visitors in the first six months.

The exhibition opens today with a dedication ceremony at 9 a.m. involving the artist and his wife, Leslie, who is president of Chihuly Studio, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, chairman of Space Needle Corp. Jeff Wright, and Bufano. Doors open to the public at 11 a.m.

Placed between the Space Needle and the Pacific Science Museum, with a new covered walkway connecting them, Chihuly Garden and Glass gives visitors something more intriguing to look at than the rollercoasters and bumper cars that preceded it. Three days before the opening, tourists already were crouching to snap photos of the just-visible glass art in the outdoor garden area, partly shielded by conifers and shrubs.

“I’ve seen his work before and like his designs,” said Pat Soberanis of Sacramento, Calif. “I’m not going to be here on (opening day), so I feel lucky to have come by at this time.”

Inside, the exhibition space is as dramatic as other Chihuly installations, including those in the Botanic Gardens in London or over the canals of Venice. Ten gallery spaces plus a movie theater and café give a swift outline of Chihuly’s career from the 1970s through the present in dark, high-ceilinged rooms. There are brief explanations on wall panels, and more on a free downloadable cellphone tour (with free earbuds in the lobby).

In the first gallery, the neon-white slim stems of “Glass Forest” curl upward from their bubbles in a 1970s groove. Conceived while the artist was teaching in New York, it was groundbreaking for glass art. The work stretches indefinitely into the mirrors behind and beneath.

Next is the Northwest Room, nearly identical to that displayed at Tacoma Art Museum last year with a planed log table displaying Chihuly’s soft-slumped Tabac Baskets of beige and gold, along with his early Northwest influences: Indian baskets (one of the artist’s many collections), juxtaposed with his own glass versions “woven” with brown or white glass rods; a wall of 62 Navajo blankets, and two more of 50 sepia Native American photogravures.

Then comes a room full of the Seaforms inspired by Puget Sound: seven Persians (large gold vessels sprouting giant glass kelp, octopi and crabs) surrounding a central aqua-indigo standing chandelier of twisted glass pieces, dotted with gold-dusted urchins and snails. Everything’s poised on mirrored black bases, with black walls to highlight the glowing iridescence of the glass.

The next space, however, is light: a corridor with Persian seaforms set into the ceiling. While it’s much brighter than the one on Tacoma’s Bridge of Glass (and reflects rainbow colors onto the white walls), it’s also smaller.

Then follows the long room of Mille Fiori, the glass garden of curvy red stems and tropical glass foliage first exhibited for the opening of Tacoma Art Museum’s new building in 2003.

From there you walk past two rowboats filled with glass ikebana and Japanese floats, Chihuly’s more recent “drawings” with metallic paint and firetorch, and into a room of seven chandeliers of the kind on view at the University of Tacoma Washington library and The News Tribune office building, developed during the 1990s and made famous in Chihuly Over Venice.

The last indoor gallery hosts 19 Macchias, the wide-lipped shells “spotted” with glass shards and standing larger than life around the dark walls. More small chandeliers line an outdoor walkway leading to a theater where visitors can watch Chihuly and his work on looping video.

But it’s the big outside attraction that you can see from the street: a towering asymmetrical glasshouse, hung with 100 feet of orange-and-red Persians in a kind of three-dimensional version of the window at Tacoma’s Union Station courthouse. The space is airy and dramatic, and obviously intended for function rental.

Finally, outside is the garden, the native plantings dotted with glass foliage in vivid reds, lilacs, yellows and blacks, including the spiky 30-foot, lime-green tower visible from the outside.

Back inside, the café serves up Northwest cuisine as well as a glimpse into Chihuly’s collecting mania: clusters of bottletops, dollhouse furniture, fairground dolls and cogwheels are set into the glass-top tables, and dozens of accordions hang from the ceiling.

Most museums devoted to single artists are, like Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, built after their death, not by the artist themselves. But that may be balanced somewhat by a proposed new gallery in Center House showing work by other Northwest artists.

The one thing that’s missing from the Chihuly exhibit is somewhere to sit: Bufano said they’re waiting to see visitors’ reactions before placing benches.

She’s also not worried about art like the Macchia and garden glass being so accessible and unroped: “People are mostly respectful of it,” she said.

Bufano, a former Tacoman who consulted for the Museum of Glass during its beginnings, stressed that the exhibition won’t take tourists away from Tacoma’s Chihuly art. She said she’s working with the Museum of Glass to organize day bus trips that will include both venues beginning in July.

“I really think people are going to come here and ask, where can I see more glass?” she said.