Amid the buzz of activity this week at the soon-to-open Cascadia Art Museum, Lindsey Echelbarger leaned back in his chair. For two years, he has been literally running non-stop to do what many said could not be accomplished in such a short time frame: Bring a fine arts museum to the Edmonds waterfront.
“People said, you can’t do that this fast,” said Echelbarger, a real estate developer with deep roots in Edmonds and South Snohomish County. “But sometimes, you just have to plunge forward with enthusiasm.”
A collector of Northwest art for more than 30 years, Echelbarger has been thinking about the idea of an Edmonds-based fine arts museum ever since he spearheaded the fundraising effort for the Edmonds Center for the Arts 10 years ago. Echelbarger noted that others in the community have also had that vision, including members of the Edmonds Arts Festival Foundation, which has overseen fine art displays in Edmonds’ Frances Anderson Center for many years.
Echelbarger’s interest in fine art recalled taking some art classes at Meadowdale High School (he graduated in 1970) but bloomed during his years at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He started out as a history major but found the classes “bone dry and academic.” Then he took an art history class and “found it was a lot of fun and I was good at it.” At Amherst, Echelbarger says he also “got hooked on museums, especially small museums.”
He ended up graduating with a double major in history and art history.
“That was a formative part for me, those years,” he said. “And ever since then it’s been an important part of my life.” He recalls that after he and his wife Carolyn bought their first house, “and all it had were white walls and one of the white walls was a cathedral ceiling with a 12-foot wall. It was just massive. It was apparent that the posters and family photos only went so far, especially with that tall ceiling.”
The couple shared an appreciation for original art, so they frequented household goods auctions, which “is still a good place to find affordable works,” Echelbarger said, including “original oil paintings with nice age on them and great interest for $100, $200, $300.”
The couple began adding a few pieces to their collection each year, but made a decision early on to focus only on Northwest artists. “It’s kind of like going to the grocery story for a bottle of red wine and there’s like 300 of them there and you need to narrow your focus, you need to educate yourself,” Echelbarger said. “You can’t educate yourself on 300 or 500 different artists.”
Through the process, the couple developed a network of art collectors and gallery owners, and became members “of almost every museum in the region,” Echelbarger said. They began to notice that fewer museums were showcasing the works of Northwest artists, particularly “the big four mystic painters” — Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey.
So as he started work on the ECA fundraising campaign 10 years ago, Echelbarger began exploring downtown Edmonds for locations that might be suitable spots for a museum. “In real estate development, I see things that aren’t there, that could be there, so I looked a a couple of parcels that could be converted. I could visualize it,” he said. “I thought it would be great to have a museum on Main Street at some point.”
But then, Echelbarger said, “I got busy with other things.” With much of his energy devoted to the Edmonds Center for the Arts capital campaign, the museum idea ended up on the back burner.
The concept resurfaced after Echelbarger and his son Nick in 2012 purchased the Waterfront Antique Mall property, a former Safeway store just south of the Edmonds ferry terminal. “We didn’t really know what we were going to do with it,” Echelbarger said. “We just knew it was a place that needed TLC, that it had been kind of run down over the years. It was a really interesting building, a wonderful location, a wonderful city.”
The Echelbargers went to work on the space, which they called Salish Crossing. Seattle-based Johnson Architecture and Planning developed a renovation plan that capitalized on the structure’s mid-century modern design. The old wing on the building’s south side, which had been added in the 1980s and was in poor condition, was torn down and replaced with a new south-facing 2,000-square-foot raised terrace, including glass-walled storefronts. Nationally renowned landscapers Charles Price and Glenn Withey, curators of Dunn Gardens, installed breathtaking new landscaping with a focus on texture and color.
“We came up with a fair amount of new tenants, and the idea started to coalesce on that [the south] end,” Echelbarger said. The building’s large space on the north end was another matter. Should they wait for a bigger tenant? Should they create an indoor mall?
Then Lindsey Echelbarger received a call from two complete strangers, both Edmonds residents with a passion for fine art — Marni Muir of the Edmonds Art Commission and Janette Turner of the Swedish Medical Center Art Committee. “They sort of planted a seed again of ‘why don’t you do a museum down here,’ and it was like, well of course,” Echelbarger recalled. “It jogged my memory of years prior of looking at something on Main Street.”
After some research, Echelbarger discovered that the former Safeway building was “really appropriate for an art museum.” with high ceilings ranging from 13 feet to 24 feet. The building also had a separate loading dock, a critical feature for ensuring the security of artworks entering and exiting the museum.
“These are objects for posterity and when people give the to the museum or they buy them, it’s for the collection and it’s supposed to be for perpetuity, so you have to take care of them,” Echelbarger explained. “It was just sort of serendipitous that this space was connected to a loading dock.”
Since that seed was planted two years ago, the 63-year-old Echelbarger has been working nonstop to make the 10,000-square-foot Cascadia Art Museum — dedicated to the legacy of Northwest art from the late 19th century to the mid-Modernist period — a reality. Supported by a volunteer board of directors and a mostly volunteer staff (the museum has just two employees), Echelbarger admits to experiencing “lots of sleepless nights, lots of waking up at 1:30 and 2:30 in the morning with a notepad next to my bed.”
He points to the contrast between Cascadia museum in its remodeled space and the built-from-the-ground-up Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, where organizers “spent 10 years raising $15 million dollars for a beautiful building and great collection.”
“We didn’t want to spend 10 years raising funds,” Echelbarger said, “and it’s an amazing jewel box inside here.”
In designing the museum space, the architects developed an interior design that exposed the original building’s beam structure, which “is just so Northwest, mid-century modern 1966,” Echelbarger explained. Three-quarter-high walls allow visitors in most places to look up into hemlock fir beams, complemented by a Douglas Fir end-grain block floor.
Over the doors of each of the five museum galleries, there was an area too high to display artworks. So Museum Board Member David F. Martin supplied the original molds from a 1962 relief sculpture created by his personal friend, the late University of Washington professor Glen Alps. The molds were reproduced and cast in plaster, framed in a clear vertical grain fir, and mounted above each gallery door. (Alps, a nationally known print maker who developed the collagraph technique. had created the original molds for an outdoor water fountain, cast into concrete.)
“We are so excited for the people of Edmonds and the surrounding cities to come in and see this addition to our area,” Echelbarger said. The museum’s first exhibit will feature “A Fluid Tradition: Northwest Watercolor Society…The First 75 Years.” Of the 150 works featured in the exhibit, just a few come from the Echelbargers’ collection. The rest are on loan from artists’ estates, collectors and regional museums such as the Henry Art Gallery, and the Frye, Tacoma and Missoula Art Museums.
“We’re able to borrow from institutions because the [Cascadia museum] interior is designed with a humidity control system to meet Smithsonian Museum standards,” Echelbarger noted.
In addition to the art exhibits, the museum features multipurpose classrooms and plans to offer classes to nearby school districts happy to avoid the traffic headaches and expense of an art museum field trip to Seattle. Also planned are art workshops for kids and adults, an art lecture series and musical concerts. The museum will also have a gift shop “with great Northwest products, lots of arts, crafts books, children’s books, interesting children’s toys,” Echelbarger said.
The museum’s central gallery will be available for event rentals, from retirement parties to receptions to dinners to cocktail parties, with all proceeds supporting the non-profit museum.
Echelbarger said that an early key to the museum’s success will be “a lean and mean business model, especially at the start,” and he praised the hard work and enthusiasm of museum volunteers, noting that 55 of them showed up on a recent Saturday morning for training. (You can learn more about volunteer opportunities here.)
So what will it mean to Echelbarger when the doors to Cascadia Art Museum officially open? “I think all people have an obligation to give back to their communities and this is part of my give-back to an area that’s been very important to me and my family,” he said. “I’m privileged to be able to do it. But in some ways, Carolyn and I are only kick-starting this project and it’s nothing that we can do completely ourselves. So it’s now up to the community and region to continue it and take it into the future.”
Cascadia Art Museum’s official opening date, with free admission, is Sept. 12, but a festive opening celebration and inaugural exhibition is scheduled two days prior, on Sept. 10, with gallery previews, wine tasting and entertainment. (Tickets here.) In addition, private tours will be offered Sept. 11 to those who have purchased annual memberships ($50 for an individual/$100 for a family).
The current exhibit runs through Jan. 3, 2016.
— By Teresa Wippel