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Originally published June 17, 2010 at 8:36 PM | Page modified June 17, 2010 at 8:47 PM

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Five years after rebirth, Bellevue Arts Museum on firmer footing

On Friday, the Bellevue Arts Museum will celebrate the fifth anniversary of its rebirth. The museum, which focuses on art, craft and design, has emerged from a tumultuous period to find new momentum.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

Seven years ago, the Bellevue Arts Museum — plagued by low attendance, financial mismanagement and a risky business model — shut down for two years.

During the closure, supporters refocused the museum's artistic vision back to its original roots in art, craft and design and hired a well-regarded director. But the community was still skeptical, some donors skittish.

And when it reopened in 2005, there was no guarantee the museum would survive.

This Friday, as leaders celebrate the fifth anniversary of BAM's rebirth during its annual membership meeting, those questions are in the past. The museum's educational programs are expanding and it is launching new efforts to showcase local artists. Paid attendance is growing and its financial footing is firmer.

Executive Director and CEO Mark Crawford is set to announce a new campaign to raise $3 million in pledges by year's end. The museum already has reached two-thirds of its goal.

The city of Bellevue jump-started the museum's revival with a $2 million grant in 2007. Museum leaders said the money helped encourage old donors to give again.

Museum leaders also were determined to bring visitors back through exhibits with local artists, showcasing them in the context of national or international peers. They credit now-retired director of curatorial affairs Michael Monroe with elevating the museum's artistic standing nationally.

The museum rotated exhibits regularly to draw people in, and churned out new publications.

Still, for the first three years after BAM reopened, board president Susan Edelheit said people kept asking if the museum would still be open the next day.

But when people didn't question replacing the retiring Monroe as artistic director with Stefano Catalani, she knew things had changed. Now, they ask, "What are they going to do next?" she said.

Crawford said, "The shift in the way the community is seeing us has come a long, long way."

The turnaround at BAM, which was founded in 1975, has not always been pretty. In 2008, its chief financial officer pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $300,000 from the museum.

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"It was a setback," said Catalani, who was the museum's curator at that time. "It was scary."

BAM now has a roughly $3 million annual budget and 1,800 members. Crawford said the paid admissions increased last year by about 30 percent. There were a total of 50,000 visits to the museum last year.

Crawford has taken additional steps to make BAM more accessible, offering free admission on the first Friday of the month and opening the museum seven days a week instead of six.

"We want to send the signal, 'We're open; we're vibrant,' " he said.

The amount of contributions, however, returned slower than hoped, with donors watching how the museum was doing before deciding to give again, said Mary Pat Byrne, arts specialist for the city of Bellevue.

Monroe was able to get more support from donors outside the Northwest than the museum has seen before, she said.

"I think that their roots into the community have been refreshed and deepened," Byrne said. "Now they are as strong artistically or stronger than they ever have been."

The Benaroya Foundation has been giving money since the time the museum reopened. Rebecca Benaroya said she had heard great things about then-director Monroe from the arts community, and felt the change in the museum was promising.

Now, she says, the shows are incredible.

"I just want to see it grow," she said. "It's a little jewel in the heart of Bellevue."

The museum's recent exhibits have included a retrospective of shoe designer Beth Levine, presenting 40 years of the designer's shoes in a cultural context. This fall, it will host its first BAM Biennial, a juried exhibition that focuses on Northwest artists.

The museum recently picked 34 artists out of nearly 200 submissions for this year's theme: clay.

"This museum is like clay," Catalani said. "We're shaping it."

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com

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