We are reopening March 5! Get tickets today »

Get to know Regan Pro, SAM’s new Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs

On August 28, 2015, SAM announced the appointment of Regan Pro as the museum’s next Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs. We sat down with her to ask her some questions about her role, her vision for SAM, and to learn more about her life outside of the museum.

SAM: First off, congratulations on your new role as the new Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs!

Regan Pro: Thank you!

SAM: You held your last role for a little over a year, but you’re not a new employee to SAM. What will change in your day-to-day as a result of your new role?

Pro: I’ve been at SAM for six years, and started out as the Museum Educator for School & Educator Programs, and then became the Manager of School & Educator Programs. After that, I became the Associate Director of Education and Public Programs then went on to become the Interim Director, which is the role I’d held since the departure of Sandra Jackson Dumont in June of 2014.

In terms of what will change, we’ve continued to evolve and grow our programming during the interim period but now I think we will be able to focus on more strategic thinking, and aligning our work to a new vision and mission. This is a chance to make some more long-term plans for the division, which is very exciting.

SAM: What are your goals for SAM in the coming year?

Pro: Some of my immediate goals are: growing the role of our reciprocal community partnerships, embedding a social practice more deeply in our programming, building out new content and programming focused on onsite experiences across the three locations, and to increase staff focus on equity and social justice. I’d like to take a reflective and critical look at how our programming is representing and responding to the communities we serve, particularly as Seattle is changing so rapidly. Additionally, I’d like to grow programming at the Olympic Sculpture Park, especially during the winter season. I’m also thinking more about the Asian Art Museum, and how we can embed it more in the Capitol Hill creative community.

SAM: As a Capitol Hill resident, I think that’s very cool.

Pro: Definitely. Focusing on young people, SAM hopes to do some new programming this year that brings more light to creative career pathways. Through programs like Design Your Hood, Teen Arts Group and our school partnerships work, I’d like the museum to be a space to not only foster creativity and youth voice but also give young people new access to creative careers through internships, site visits and partnerships, ideally raising the visibility of the critical role creativity plays in all careers- from tech and beyond.

SAM: That sounds like a fantastic goal and resource for the community. It’s also a great segway into my next question: what do you love most about your role, and about SAM?

Pro: I really love my job at SAM and feel grateful everyday that I get to engage in this work. The arts and artists transform people’s understanding of what is possible. They are powerful tools for social equity and perspective sharing. There are so many complex, incredible narratives that you can learn from works of art in our museum and so many complex, incredible narratives you can learn from the people looking at these works. I think to advocate for art as a transformational tool from the platform of a museum is powerful. But what I love most about this job is the people, and the relationships that I’ve cultivated with staff, artists, and community members. I’m lucky to have a job where I share ideas with brilliant, curious and committed people all day long.

SAM: What are you most proud of accomplishing at SAM?

Pro: I’m proud of the work we’ve done with school partnerships, helping to fill in the gaps of arts education, and of the Creative Advantage program, (which offers free professional learning workshops focused on sharing best practice for K–12 arts learning).

Internally, we’ve built some great collaboration across museum divisions. Within the department we’ve helped cultivate a space where everyone can continue to grow in their roles, work on the projects that they feel strongly about, and to develop better best practices at work.

I’m also proud of the moments when we’ve leaned into our discomfort and asked difficult questions of ourselves as an institution. I hope this is an area where I can continue to push the work.

SAM: Last question: what do you like to do when you’re not working?

Pro: I love to geek out on all of the opportunities to experience art and culture in the city. I go to a lot of exhibitions and performances. I’m excited for the upcoming On the Boards and Seattle Arts & Lectures seasons particularly, Alison Bechdel and Ta-Nehisi Coates, coming up soon.

My husband is a musician, and music is an important part of our lives. I also have an 18-month old son, so I have a newfound appreciation for our local parks and libraries. And the more time I spend floating in bodies of water, the better and happier I am.

How Picasso Brought Masks to Europe and Left the Masquerade Behind

Throughout the 20th century, vast collections of African masks made their way into foreign lands and are now on display as the heads of missing bodies. Masks are constantly seen in museums and galleries, on eBay, and at sidewalk sales. In this dislocated state, African masks have sometimes found themselves cast in roles that are shockingly counter to their original intent.

One example is Pablo Picasso’s work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York), a painting lauded as one of the catalysts in 20th-century art. Pablo Picasso’s decision to take the features of African masks and place them on two naked women was revolutionary, the first step in the radical transformation of space and volume that would become Cubism.

One wonders what would have happened if Picasso hadn’t separated the masks from the masquerade. What if, instead, a full masquerade had come to Paris? For the sake of speculation, let’s imagine the visit of a Dan masquerader from the Ivory Coast, known as a Ge, whose masks were common in French collections. Drummers and singers would escort the Ge masquerader as he moved quickly through the streets to Picasso’s studio. He would have donned a massive costume of raffia grasses, feathers, and fur accents to underscore that he was not from any normal human realm but from the sacred forests. Bells and drums, shouts and songs would contribute to the blur of fast-moving activity that halted in front of the artist’s door.

Pounding to be let in, the Ge would speak in a grave and distorted voice, while a translator would shout a demand to open the door. Picasso would be pushed aside as the Ge entered the room, and pandemonium would break out as African eyes beheld masks like their own were depicted atop the naked bodies of two women with pale skin.

With outrage and confusion spreading, everyone would turn to gauge the reaction of the Ge, the supreme authority. He would stop and stare, then order everyone except Picasso and the translator to leave the studio. The Ge would then sit on the group and gesture for Picasso to sit nearby as he explained a few things.

First: no mask was ever to be worn by a woman, and most definitely not a naked woman in the middle of a room with other naked women. Defying all proper behavior, this breach of etiquette required immediate correction, so songs and offerings for women would be prescribed.

The Ge would ask Picasso why he put masks on such women and who they were. Picasso might bring up difficulties with the women in his life, and how he’d been looking at pictures of masks in books and at a museum, then had collected a postcard of naked women from a place called Dahomey, marveling at their sleek bodies but also worrying about the diseases circulating in the bordellos of Paris.

In response, the Ge might offer practical advice about how to manage relationships and to seek alliances with spirits that would inspire joy instead of dark fears. He could also explain that masks were not to be bought and sold; instead, they were intended to initiate visitations from beings who would emerge from the forests to contribute their wisdom in times of confusion.
Days and weeks might pass as the Ge transferred aspects from the system of thought from the Côte d’Ivoire. It was his role to teach younger men ways to operate in the world, and he would have found Picasso’s troubled mind in need of adjustment. To alleviate some of the artist’s perplexity about life, the Ge would recommend that he consider attending a school convened in the forest, where he would learn about his responsibilities as a young man, how to survive in difficult circumstances, what it takes to manage a family, when and how to show respect for women, the practical skills of life, and all about the art of performance as a means to express visions of human aspiration. Picasso would be offered a chance to immerse himself in a masquerade that was a school, a system, and an overriding ideal.

Instead of this full-bodied experience, Picasso invented his own approach to African masks and sculptures. Masks became heads without any voice or body. They became voiceless ambassadors, who were often cast as characters in other’s artistic fantasies.

Admittedly, exporting an entire masquerade is difficult and can be inappropriate at times. Masquerades are intensely local, requiring special staging developed within communities that invest massive time and effort in them, often in deepest secrecy. They rely on collaborations among a multitude of talented artists who devote their creativity to performers whose identities are concealed, and transporting this cast and crew is not easy.

Artists today in the United States and across the globe are working with new interpretations of disguises that play out in creative ways. They are using digital mediums to bring masquerades into places where they have never been before, and creating new meanings as they empower new actors—such as women—to participate. They adapt iconography from multiple cultures and influences, weaving together inspiration from their family’s varied histories, the far-flung cities and rural areas in which they’ve lived, and artistic traditions from across the globe.

It’s a heady mixture of inspiring havoc. It’s a moving, whirling parade that invites us to respond—to take up or take off our own daily disguises and participate.

This is an edited excerpt of the essay, “Meet Me Where the Masks Are Alive and the Spirits Roam Free,” written by Pamela McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art for the Seattle Art Museum. The essay is included in the exhibition guide, Disguise: Masks & Global African Art.

Disguise: Masks & Global African Art is on view at the Seattle Art Museum. See this dynamic unfixed exhibition before it departs for the Fowler Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles on September 7.