Tacoma, WA: Tacoma Art Museum Plaza

Artist rendering of a night shot of a plaza in front of the museum
Photo courtesy of Olson Kundig Architects

How can the design of an art museum’s main plaza transform the public space into a more vibrant, walkable area for downtown and museum visitors?

Tacoma Art Museum anchors the gateway into the city’s downtown area, but its site is framed by an interstate highway, a busy street, and an industrial water inlet. The museum and the City of Tacoma shared a vision for a better, more publicly accessible entrance to the city, and partnered to develop plans to transform the under-utilized paved areas around the museum into vibrant public spaces. These new spaces would be designed to encourage pedestrian circulation and public gatherings, allowing the museum and City to explore outdoor programs and exhibits, while providing the city the opportunity to more effectively manage its storm water.


Tacoma is a small city south of Seattle, on the banks of Washington State’s Puget Sound. Tacoma Art Museum, or TAM, is an anchor of the city’s thriving cultural landscape, attracting over 225,000 cultural tourists from the region and nation each year. Designed by Antoine Predock, it stewards a collection of over 4,000 works of art, including a significant number of works by Dale Chihuly, a glass sculptor and Tacoma native. The Greater Tacoma Convention Center, the Washington State History Museum, and the Museum of Glass are all nearby. Though it is very close to the Thea Foss Waterway, a Puget Sound inlet (and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site), the museum is wedged between Interstate 705 and a busy Pacific Avenue, the downtown thoroughfare.


Historically, Tacoma was known as the “City of Destiny” because it served as the final stop on the Northern Pacific Railroad. Today it is a diverse city of 202,000 people, with a population that is 65% white, 11% African American, 11% Latino, and 8% Asian. Economically, however it still faces challenges, with 48% of the population falling below 80% of area median income, and more than 20% of public school students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.


Amy McBride, City of Tacoma Arts Administrator, described the space around the Museum previously as an “underutilized deadzone, with limited pedestrian use and long, unattractive stretches of concrete.” Museum surveys found that 95% of its visitors entered the building through the parking lot. Through earlier planning efforts, the City of Tacoma had also identified needs for the area. On a broad level they were looking for ways to promote Tacoma as a destination within the region. Locally within the district, they knew they needed to support a better pedestrian experience. As a waterfront city with high annual rainfall, they also had to meet the critical need of better managing storm water runoff.



Earlier visioning sessions with the city created the idea of transforming the area surrounding the museum, including Pacific Avenue, into a pedestrian-friendly district that could support gatherings and performances. The project’s vision of a new museum plaza that engaged the streetscape worked within this broader goal and focused on the transformation of Pacific Avenue into a “complete street.” As a gateway that could highlight Tacoma as an artistic community, the main downtown thoroughfare would serve to welcome users and provide opportunities to gather, spurring creative activity throughout the year. The project would also allow the city to address its storm water infrastructure by replacing impermeable hardscapes with more permeable surfaces that would help mitigate runoff.


As the project would entail a major intervention in Tacoma's urban fabric, the city involved several of its departments, including Public Works, Planning, Environmental Services, Arts, and Economic Development. Beyond city administration, everything was closely coordinated with the Tacoma Art Museum. As museum director Stephanie A. Stebich remarks, “in the 1990s, the museum worked closely with the city during the construction of its current facility, transforming downtown Tacoma. Our continued work together will build on that success and ensure Tacoma is a thriving, creative and welcoming community with the arts at its core.” Seattle-based design firm Olson Kundig Architects served as the lead designers for both the museum plaza and were liaisons to the large street improvement project on Pacific Avenue. Artist Elizabeth Conner, the artist working with the design team, played an important role making visual and experiential connections that knit together the public spaces.


Timing was essential to this project. Other capital projects were also underway, including the Pacific Avenue Streetscape Improvements, which made coordination essential to achieving the vision. Since the project was predicated on enhancing the public domain, the museum and city implemented programs and installations on the project’s site as a way of communicating activity about the projects and foreshadowing future possibilities. To ensure the plaza and streetscape responded to community needs, the City of Tacoma and TAM actively involved residents and stakeholders throughout the planning and design process, hosting design charrettes in order to share progress through public presentations and discussions. TAM also regularly met with different city departments, ensuring all necessary permitting was accounted for and making sure the project stayed on schedule.


The project succeeded in creating a gateway to the city’s downtown area with new spaces for public use and arts engagement. For a region with heavy rainfall, the project also mitigated storm water runoff, integrating art and permeable urban surfaces. Moving forward, TAM will be able to feature outdoor exhibition spaces, allowing the museum to work with the City and the community to transform unused space into places for permanent and temporary artworks. It additionally will allow for enhanced outdoor gatherings and performances. The museum anticipates that this project, combined with a concurrent gallery expansion, will drive a 20% increase in attendance.


Once the design had been drafted and the temporary programming put into effect, the project had a way of rallying community support, far in advance of completion. This support came by way of grassroots interest and participation, but also in museum donor backing. When approached to support this project, Erivan and Helga Haub, a German family with strong local ties, were inspired to donate more than 280 works of Western American art with significant funds for a gallery expansion. This gift will enable the museum to fully explore the art history of the West and integrate the Western and Northwest collections. The funding also allowed the gallery expansion to be seamlessly incorporated into this plaza project, inspiring renewed enthusiasm from the community. The city reports that the role of the arts in the planning process—ranging from public art to storm water runoff—has been constructive, suggesting it will serve as a model for future efforts. As McBride said, “it sets a new standard for civic design expectations and collaboration in the city.”


Tacoma Art Museum

  • The Puyallup Tribe
  • State of Washington
  • The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation
  • Tacoma Stormwater Utility Funds
  • Focus Groups and Lunches: Organized by Tacoma Art Museum to discuss opportunities for plaza space activation and design.
  • Panel Presentations / Discussions: Tied to TAM's BNY Mellon Exhibit "Drawing Line into Form: Works on Paper by Sculptors" that focused on public space and public art.
  • Coffee Updates: Held by the City of Tacoma at various restaurants and shops affected by the project to keep the community informed and receive input.
  • Tacoma Arts Commission: TAM presented information about the project to the Tacoma Arts Commissions at various stages.
  • Temporary Art Installations: Artist Daniel Martin was commissioned to create multiple installations, which used "duct tape" by the mystery "green man" along Pacific Avenue, to develop interest and raise visibility for Elizabeth Conner's permanent public art along the avenue. 
  • TAM Video Press Releases about the "Green Flash" project provided a framework to raise visibility about the permanent public art project.