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Whatcom Museum Opens The Lightcatcher: New $18.3 Million Facility
The “lightcatcher” gently curves to form a spacious exterior courtyard. Photo: Tim Bies/Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects.

BELLINGHAM, WA.- Whatcom Museum opened the Lightcatcher. The result of an inspiring commitment of time and dollars from hundreds of citizens, businesses and organizations that include the Public Facilities District, the Campaign for the Arts, the Whatcom Community Foundation and the Whatcom Museum Foundation, the Lightcatcher is “a gift for the community, from the community,” said Campaign For the Arts Board President Ken Culver. “We tip our hats to the Museum, its board and members,” said Culver. “The whole arts community is absolutely delighted that we were able to bring all these various entities together to create this cornerstone of our new arts and culture district.”

For the Whatcom Museum, the Lightcatcher represents a pivotal moment in its 68 year history.

“As our first facility designed and built for use as a museum, the Lightcatcher enables the Whatcom Museum to bring world-class art to Bellingham, while expanding our ability to serve our growing community,” said Executive Director Patricia Leach. “We couldn’t be more excited, or more grateful to the people of Bellingham and Whatcom County for their enthusiastic and generous support.”

Defined by an iconic, 180-foot-long glass wall, the facility was designed by architecture firm Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen’s founding partner Jim Olson. The Seattle-based firm is the recipient of the American Institute of Architects 2009 Architecture Firm Award. In addition to state-of-the-art, humidity- and temperature-controlled galleries for traveling and local exhibitions, the Lightcatcher is home to the innovative and highly anticipated Family Interactive Gallery (FIG), formerly known as the Children’s Museum.

In joining the Whatcom Museum’s original home, the historic Old City Hall, and the Syre Education Center, the Lightcatcher adds 42,000 square feet of gallery, education, storage and public spaces to its “campus” between Prospect, Flora and Grand in the heart of Bellingham’s nascent cultural district.

Public Facilities District
The $18.3 million Lightcatcher’s design and construction were funded through a combination of public and private funds, with the majority coming through the Whatcom Public Facilities District (PFD), an entity created in 2002 by the Bellingham City Council and the Whatcom County Council. PFDs were authorized by the state legislature for the purpose of creating regional centers to benefit local populations through new facilities that serve as an economic spur. The PFD receives a portion (one-third of one percent) of sales taxes collected by the state in Whatcom County. The opening of the Lightcatcher completes the final, and largest, project under the PFD’s authority to create a cultural district in Bellingham.

“Because of its imaginative design and beautiful materials, this building will be a magnet for the community, drawing thousands of people to its exhibitions and to the civic center area, said PFD Board President Dunham Gooding. “The community will have cultural and educational experiences at a new level, and the affect on regional tourism to Bellingham is expected to be very significant.”

Campaign for the Arts
Remaining funds for the Lightcatcher have been raised privately by the Campaign for the Arts through the Whatcom Community Foundation. “Supporters of arts and culture came together and raised approximately $8 million to help restore and enhance the Mt. Baker Theatre, build an iconic structure for the museum and create some beautiful streetscape work that helps define the area,” said Culver, explaining that a portion of those dollars go to permanent, endowed funds that will help support the two institutions going forward.

“We as a community should be very proud of what’s been accomplished here. The creation of this district is a landscape-changing proposition in the history of Bellingham, one that, along with the much larger waterfront development project, represents one of the most significant changes we’ll see in our lifetime,” said Culver.

Inaugural exhi bit ions b ring significant works to light
The Lightcatcher opens with two dramatic exhibitions that give people the chance to see significant works of art by internationally recognized artists: Out of Bounds: Art from the Collection of Driek and Michael Zirinsky and Bloom: The Elephant Bed, a site-specific installation by Seattle-based artist John Grade.

The FIG integrates 63 works of art from the Museum’s permanent collection as well as a mural by D.W. Miller and numerous references to the Northwest natural environment both interactive and passive. For instance, the gallery showcases the fine work of wood artisans Andrew Vallee and Wesley Smith through the curved walls, benches and interactive components made of native alder that define the space.

The Lightcatcher itself is a work of art, with a design that reflects the museum’s commitment to a fresh and vital future: the building is modern, earth-friendly and connected to the street. With its sweeping, light-diffusing glass wall, the Lightcatcher is a quiet symbol of enlightenment, true to the modest, nature powered values of its Northwest home. The Lightcatcher is the first museum in Washington State built to LEED Silver standards and includes a green roof and rainwater harvesting strategies that will be highlighted for public education.

Three-building campus
Whatcom Museum now comprises three facilities: Old City Hall, which interprets local history and hosts many public programs; The Lightcatcher, featuring fine art and the unique Family Interactive Gallery (FIG) as well as the Museum Store and a café; and The Syre Education Center, home to classroom space, permanent historical exhibits for group tours and school field trips and the Museum’s cherished photo archives.

Old City Hall, closed during the move to the Lightcatcher, is slated to resume partial operation in December with some of its most popular winter holiday programs. Long-term plans include renovating the building to include additional space for both temporary and permanent history exhibitions, while opening areas like the old basement jail for tours.

Whatcom Museum | The Lightcatcher | Patricia Leach |

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