A Little IMA History

Some IMA History: The Little Island With The Big Dreams 

It was an improbable notion brought to life by an unflappable bunch of artists on a remote island in Puget Sound’s Salish Sea. Their harebrained idea: to build a fine arts museum that would gain the attention of artists and global audiences. They had no money. They had no building.  Still, the tiny museum-without-a-home set up grand exhibitions in venues from theater lobbies to abandoned retail shops. Dedicated volunteers swept, painted, built exhibition space and wooed talent from around the country to the new San Juan Islands Museum of Art (aka IMA.)

After seven years wandering, the peripatetic museum began to pine for a real home. Enter: businessman Charlie Bodenstab, whose late wife Pam had been one of the museum’s founders. Bodenstab’s business acumen brought new energy to the group, who, while still nomadic, dreamed of a permanent landing place. 

Three years later, after 10 years on the road, they found it. 

San Juan Island had recently completed a shiny new hospital, leaving a former emergency medical vehicle garage standing abandoned on Spring Street, Friday Harbor’s main thoroughfare. The building was tall and sturdy, with excellent bones and personality to match. The potential, invisible to some, was obvious to Bodenstab and the crew of volunteers: this would make a great museum.

As construction began, the 5,000 square foot building took shape as a work of art itself. Architect Richard Hobbs’ slightly controversial addition of a soaring glass and steel atrium streetside gives the structure a uniquely dramatic presence in this quiet town.

The San Juan Islands – accessible only by boat or air – seem to ooze art. It’s hard to say whether art is attracted or born there by the islands’ dreamlike beauty. The San Juans rank consistently high in the Washington State Arts Commission Creative Vitality Index, an indicator of art sales per capita. Further testament to the abundance of local talent, IMA has long maintained an Artists’ Registry of more than 60 artists, giving them a venue to sell their art through annual shows.

The young benefit as well. Even while living out of crates, the IMA team insisted on supporting island school art programs, with contributions freely given to fund an art teacher’s salary at San Juan Island Elementary.  With an award from the WSAC to prove it, IMA continues to reach out to ensure that local children receive a fine art education.

The goal of IMA is to keep the museum accessible to islanders, while attracting the attention of the international art scene. IMA expects that art-loving travelers who come to see the new museum will stay to relish the beauty of the islands. They will sleep at local hotels, eat at local restaurants, and discover local art studios and galleries, thus supporting the local economy in all seasons. 

The architectural firm of Richard W. Hobbs, FAIA + Wagner Galloway created the new design, which incorporates a light-filled glass atrium into the existing building. This elegant combination of wood and glass in a climate controlled environment will also serve as an open reception area for special exhibitions and events.

Art is displayed in three spaces: the intimate North Gallery, the main Nichols Gallery and the Atrium Gallery. On the second floor is a state-of-the-art workshop and teaching space.

IMA plans many workshops throughout its first year. Susan Middleton, author of Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life, will teach a 5-day class on wildlife photography. Middleton’s stunning photographs of invertebrates will be featured in IMA’s second exhibition of the same name, May 22 through August 21.