The Interview Issue | Stephanie Stebich

The director of the Tacoma Art Museum on a landmark gift of important western art

Stephanie Stebich, director of the Tacoma Art Museum.

Stephanie Stebich, director of the Tacoma Art Museum.

This story was featured in the March 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!

Changes in the museum world often happen as gradual evolutions—a small bequest here, a new addition there. In that context, the Tacoma Art Museum’s grand opening last November of the Haub Family Collection of Western American Art constitutes a major revolution. The museum’s dimensions doubled through the addition of a new wing, which is dedicated to showcasing an internationally recognized collection of almost 300 superb paintings and sculptures spanning art of the American West from 1797 to today. The artworks, building, and substantial support funds were all the bequest of Erivan and Helga Haub, German collectors and philanthropists who have made Tacoma their second home since the 1950s. We talked with Stephanie Stebich about the gift’s impact on her institution and the art world at large.

How and why did the Haub Family Collection come to Tacoma? 
It relates to three of the family’s great loves: Tacoma, America, and western art. When the time came for them to donate the collection, the Haubs thought about what places in the world had meaning for them. Their sons were all born here in Tacoma and have dual German-U.S. citizenship. The family spent their summers here. And they’ve been very supportive of the Tacoma Art Museum before.

There’s been a great deal of talk about what a landmark event last November’s opening was. Could you explain its significance to your museum and city? People in Tacoma have actually stopped me in the supermarket and told me how excited and appreciative they are of this gift of art. They understand that it’s a smart gift, one that comes with the space in which to see these works and also the funds to support the collection.

Has it been making an impact beyond Tacoma, too? There’s no collection of American western art of this caliber, quality, and breadth anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. Before this, you’d have to go to the Autry National Center in Los Angeles or the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, MT, to see anything like it. On the East Coast, there’s not such an appreciation for the art of the American West. It makes sense that this collection belongs here in Tacoma, at the end of the western journey. Here, it’s very relatable. We still have cowboys and Native Americans and the railway.

Edward Borein, Headin’ Up the Range, circa 1915, oil, 30 x 20. Tacoma Art Museum, Haub Family Collection, Gift of Erivan and Helga Haub, 2014.6.13

Edward Borein, Headin’ Up the Range, circa 1915, oil, 30 x 20. Tacoma Art Museum, Haub Family Collection, Gift of Erivan and Helga Haub, 2014.6.13

Is there a broader significance for the nation and the art world, too? Yes. This is one of those rare private collections that has been carefully curated and strategically composed. Any time great private collections come into public hands, it’s a cause for celebration. The Haubs allowed us to cherry-pick the best of the best—295 artworks from their collection of over 500—and they gave us significant support with which to show them. It’s a model gift.

What makes the collection’s artworks themselves so extraordinary? The Haubs have collected everything from early historical works of the western exploration all the way to contemporary works. That’s unusual in itself. Some museum collections focus on one period in the West, or the works of certain artists. We can tell the story of the West in so many ways that other museums may have to cobble together. The quality of the art itself is very high, too. We have all the key names—particularly the earliest European explorer-artists who accompanied scientific and cultural expeditions. We have Charles Bird King’s full-length portrait of Wanata, the Grand Chief of the Sioux, and Remington’s CONJURING BACK THE BUFFALO. There’s something very special about being able to capture, in depth, the passion and vision of a collector.

Do you have any personal favorites in the collection? My field is contemporary art, so I’m excited at the opportunity to get to know some of these living artists in the collection. At the 
opening, we had artists including Bill Schenck, Clyde Aspevig, Veryl Goodnight, and John Nieto.

Any opportunities about it all that particularly excite you? I’m excited by the opportunity to tell the western-art story from the lesser-known perspectives of women and from Asians, Hispanics, and black cowboys and settlers. We’re late to the game of western art, so we can look at it afresh and ask ourselves how we can showcase these works of art with a fresh dynamic. 
—Interview by Norman Kolpas

Featured in the March 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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