All posts in “SAM Staff”

Muse/News: Chiyo’s goodbye, the art of hom bows, and Earth’s mini moon

SAM News

Last week, we announced that Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, will retire this summer after 30 years with the museum. The Seattle Times, KUOW, Artforum, Artnet, ARTnews, Artdaily, and Hyperallergic all shared the news. In Crosscut’s Arts & Culture newsletter, Brangien Davis spoke for everyone when she wrote, “Beloved in the Seattle arts community for her insight, approachability and très chic personal style, Ishikawa will be missed.”

“A Place for Meaningful Cultural Conversations” declared the headline for art critic Lee Lawrence’s thoughtful review of the reimagined Asian Art Museum, which appeared in the February 25 print edition of the Wall Street Journal.

“These 19th-century bululs, or rice deities, from the Philippines once watched over terraced paddies, and they’re among the museum’s most modest yet most powerful works. Given the nature and small size of its Philippine holdings, the Seattle Asian Art Museum probably would have kept them in storage had it opted for a traditional installation. But in another benefit of thematic groupings, they—and other long-warehoused treasures in the museum’s collection—now have a role, enriching the new installation not just with their stories but with their spirit.”

Local News

Seattle-based artist Susie J. Lee is making a short video about what makes a museum “interesting and cool.” The Seattle Times’ Alan Berner captured photos of the recent shoot at the Asian Art Museum.

Crosscut’s new video series, Art Seen, explores “the hidden art of the everyday”; they recently showed us how Mee Sum Pastry makes all those hom bows, day in and day out.

The Seattle Times’ Crystal Paul reviews the new collection of stories by Zora Neale Hurston, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick.

“As a trained anthropologist, Hurston traveled down the East Coast and sat on stoops and corners, the storytelling stages and communal gathering spaces of Black communities, where, with academic rigor and a loving gaze, she listened, studied and collected the stories Black folk tell.”

Inter/National News

Tara Bahrampour for the Washington Post on the Phillips Collection’s Creative Aging program, which helps seniors connect and make art.

Holland Cotter of the New York Times on MoMA’s Donald Judd survey that opens on Sunday, noting that his work “can now be seen to offer pleasures, visual and conceptual, that any audience with open eyes, can relate to.”

Hyperallergic’s Kealey Boyd reviews the exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China; its national tour has now brought it to the Smart Museum of Art and Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, before it heads to SAM this summer.

“It is not often a new category of art historical research is proposed as a solution to these persistent problems, but The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China makes a compelling case for the usefulness of a new analytical structure around Chinese art.” 

And Finally

Earth can have a mini moon (as a treat).

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Scott Areman
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A Modern Champion: Virginia Wright (1929–2020)

With a heavy heart, we share the news of the passing of Virginia Wright, a pillar of the SAM family. Virginia and her late husband Bagley played pivotal roles in the development, vibrancy, and accomplishments of the Seattle Art Museum for more than half a century. Beyond being generous contributors, the Wrights’ greatest impact on SAM is seen in the art of the collection and in the art shown. Virginia was among a very small group of people who, in the 1960s, pushed SAM to create its first modern and contemporary art program. Virginia and Bagley also contributed to the purchase of many important acquisitions over the years. Above all else, the Wrights amassed one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary art in the world (over 200 works), all purchased with SAM in mind as the collection’s eventual home. When the bulk of it came to SAM in 2014, forming the backbone of its modern and contemporary collection, SAM was transformed from a great institution into a truly remarkable one.

Earlier this month, Virginia said, “When I think about the future of the Wright Collection at SAM, I put my trust in the artists. I trust that future generations will value their work, that SAM will continue to provide meaningful access to it, and that the conversations that their work has inspired will continue.” We are honored by her faith in Seattle’s museum and, because of her support over the last 60 years, we are confident that we can live up to the legacy she established.

Born in Seattle and raised in British Columbia, Virginia went East for college and majored in art history. Out of college, she worked for Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan and began collecting art. Mark Rothko’s abstract painting Number 10 (1952) was one of her early, daring purchases and it is now part of SAM’s collection.

Virginia has been a SAM member since 1951. She began docent training in 1957 and led her first public tour in 1959. In 1959, the Wrights made their first-ever gift to SAM’s collection: Room with White Table (1953) by William Ward Corley. That year they also provided funding for SAM to acquire Winter’s Leaves of the Winter of 1944 (at the time titled Leaves Before Autumn Wind) by Morris Graves.

In 1964, she and a group of friends persuaded then-director Richard Fuller to let her start the Contemporary Art Council (CAC), a group of collectors at the museum. For the next decade, it functioned as the museum’s first modern art department. The CAC sponsored lectures and supported the first exhibitions of Op art and conceptual art in Seattle. It also brought the popular Andy Warhol Portraits exhibition to Seattle in 1976, among many other important exhibitions. Her role in bringing great art to the Seattle Art Museum also involved the curation of two solo exhibitions for Morris Louis (in 1967) and William Ivey (in 1975).

Virginia joined SAM’s board in 1960, making 2020 her 60th anniversary with the Seattle Art Museum. She temporarily stepped away in 1972 when her husband Bagley joined the Board and rejoined in 1982. She served as President of the Board from 1987–90. Virginia was President of SAM’s Board of Trustees from 1986–1992, years that coincided with the construction and opening of the downtown Robert Venturi building in 1991—the museum’s first major transformation since its opening in 1933 and a major shift in Seattle’s cultural life to downtown First Avenue (with the Symphony soon following).

In 1999, SAM mounted an exhibition of the Wright Collection (The Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection of Modern Art, March 4–May 9, 1999). The Wrights’ entire art collection—the largest single collection of modern and contemporary art in the region—has been gradually donated (and the balance of the collection promised) to the Seattle Art Museum. A significant portion of the collection came to the museum in 2014 when the Wrights’ private exhibition space closed.

When the Seattle Art Museum opened the Olympic Sculpture Park in 2007, many works from the Wrights’ collection were installed there, including Mark di Suvero’s Bunyon’s Chess (1965) and Schubert Sonata (1992), as well as works by Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Smith, Anthony Caro, and Roxy Paine.

SAM’s ongoing exhibition Big Picture: Art After 1945 draws from the Wrights’ transformative gift of over 100 works and is a reminder of their incredible generosity.

Virginia was an active board member up to the end of her life, regularly attending meetings and advising the museum in many important endeavors. About SAM Virginia said, “It’s always been the main arena. I never wanted to break off and start a museum. I wanted to push the museum we already had into being more responsive to contemporary art.” And SAM would like to acknowledge that she did just that, leaving an undeniable mark on the cultural landscape of the entire Pacific Northwest.

As Amada Cruz, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, says, “Even having only been in Seattle for a short time, it’s clear that Virginia Wright’s impact on the city and on SAM is beyond measure. Her legacy, and that of her late husband Bagley, is seen in both the very walls and on the walls of the downtown museum, and it fills the Olympic Sculpture Park’s landscapes. I’m honored to have been able to know her and of her hopes for SAM’s continued future.”

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Lauren Farris: Emerging Arts Leader Intern Look at SAM

“Vulnerability” has been a bit of a buzz word ever since Brené Brown’s TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Having watched Brené’s TED Talk and read one of her books, I value vulnerability a lot, but being vulnerable myself can still feel fairly nerve-wracking. So when the other Emerging Arts Leader Intern and I were asked to lead a My Favorite Things Tour, little did I know that the next 10 weeks would also include a road trip down vulnerability lane. 

When I first heard about the tour, I thought this tour would remain in the realm of theoretical, academic concepts. To be fair, a large part of the process involved researching the history behind each piece, utilizing resources from SAM’s libraries (thanks, Traci, Jordyn, and Yueh-Lin!), and meeting with curators (thanks, Pam and Chiyo!). But along with the historical research, our mentors and colleagues, Rachel, Seohee, David, and Priya (thank you all!), encouraged us to delve vulnerably into our stories and weave them into each piece. 

Because of this, I began asking myself some questions about my story, including being mixed race. For a while, I’ve been nervous about my voice because being mixed race often feels like a grey area between two distinct points of view and voices in society. But as I worked on the tour, each of our mentors and countless people shared their time, insight, stories, and vulnerability to help me process, ask deeper questions, and craft the content of the tour. Without them, the tour and this blog post would look entirely different. 

Not to mention, I’ll always cherish the times the other Emerging Arts Leader Intern, Cat, and I practiced nearly 50 versions of our ever-evolving tour with each other. Because our tours delved into more personal topics, we became each other’s support and cheerleader through a lot of ups and a few downs. Together, we also arranged informational interviews with staff across many departments, assisted at events like SAM Remix, DragonFest, and Summer Institute for Educators, and attended department and equity team meetings. I learned so much from working with Cat (miss you!) and love the ways in which SAM values and integrates collaboration. 

Throughout this entire internship, I’ve learned so much about museums, equity work within museums, and about myself. The interdisciplinary focus provided the opportunity to learn about many of the departments that comprise SAM. All throughout and above the galleries, it’s inspiring to see how many dedicated individuals play a role – from fundraising to checking coats to communicating with the press to leading student tours—to make SAM the museum that it is. 

I also learned a lot about equity work in museums that I didn’t know before. I’ve realized that it’s not enough to know some terms or read some papers or books, but it takes the vulnerability to ask myself the same questions within these papers. And it takes the bravery to answer these questions honestly. 

SAM gave me a safe space to ask questions and come from a posture of growth and progression rather than perfection. More than ever, I’ve learned how crucial and empowering it is to connect with people who share both similar and different experiences. The ways that SAM strives for equity within education, programming, exhibitions, staff, and every part of SAM is inspiring. SAM is opening up dialogue, asking themselves, and others, critical questions, and aiming to lead and learn with each step towards furthering inclusivity and equity. SAM taught me that it takes vulnerability and guts to genuinely look at equity within ourselves in order to implement equity institutionally and beyond.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who made this internship so special. And guess what? I’m so grateful, honored, and thrilled to continue on with SAM’s amazing Development Team as a Campaign Assistant! See you around!

– Lauren Farris, SAM Campaign Assistant & 2019 Emerging Arts Leader Intern

Photos: Natali Wiseman.

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Twice as Nice: SAM Staff Artists Tie FTW

Every year Seattle Art Museum’s Community Gallery is dedicated to artwork by its staff and the eclectic outcome is a thing of true beauty—as colorful and strange as all the art lovers and artists that work here. This year, in a true testament to the volume of excellent work that was on view July 31 to September 1, not one but two talented SAM staff members were voted as faves by their peers. Ashley Mead, Assistant Registrar-Rights and Reproductions, and Natali Wiseman, Design Studio Manager, tied for our hearts this time around. Learn more about these two artists their obsessions with color, and their love for SAM’s Australian Aboriginal collection in this interview!

SAM: How does this work fit into your larger artmaking practice? Have you always worked in this medium?

Ashley Mead: It doesn’t? Or rather, because I’m inconsistent in my practice it totally fits with my larger artmaking practice. I just couldn’t tell you how. I’ve worked with paper for a few years and in collage for one year, and only because I agreed to do a portrait before I remembered that I can’t draw. Other than that, I dabble in just about every medium I can get my hands on—hence the inconsistency.

Natali Wiseman: I have always painted, but this is the first painting I’ve made in a few years. Previously I did a lot of really detailed illustrative painting, which completely broke me, so I took a long break. I wanted to try something a lot looser with less clean edges. Playing with dimensional paint was fun and new. For the last several years I have mostly been doing screen printing and collage, so it was nice to get back into painting.

What inspired the piece in the art show? Is there a story behind the work or is it part of a series?

Mead: It’s based on a photo of me, Ted, and Michael Besozzi taken at the Smith Tower on my birthday two years ago. We looked so good I wanted to know what we’d look like in paper—we’re definitely more colorful and less serious in this work than in the photo.

Wiseman: I have a 1960s craft book from my mom that has detailed instructions on making “chemical gardens”, also known as ammonia gardens (or sometimes you can buy them in kits, called “magic gardens”). The gardens are these melty piles of color, which I felt compelled to paint with overgrown fungal-looking flowers. There is something interesting to me about creating synthetic gardens.

What artists or artworks are inspirations to you in general?

Mead: Oh goodness. I’m a fan of color, that’s probably the biggest thing that draws me to a piece or artist. Specifics though, Van Gogh has always been a favorite. Mickalene Thomas is a more recent love. Oh, and I love our Australian Aboriginal collection. That’s just a short hodgepodge list.

Wiseman: This is hard! Color is a big deal for me. I love Sister Corita Kent’s work. I really like the Light and Space movement and color field painting. I also love Judy Chicago, Lynda Benglis, Richard Tuttle, Kenneth Noland, Jack Whitten, Gehard Richter, Wayne Thiebaud, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney . . . I suppose there could be a theme there. I love surrealism, particularly Rene Magritte, Man Ray, and Leonora Carrington. At SAM, I find the work in the Aboriginal Australian gallery to be very inspiring and meditative.

What other art projects are you working on right now or looking forward to?

Mead: All of them! I have about a half dozen commissions and half-million ideas, so good luck to me on figuring out what to focus on next.

Wiseman: More gardens, and I have some collages in the works. Hoping to do more large-scale screen printing, too. And I really want to get into ceramics! 

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, SAM Content Strategist & Social Media Manager

Photos: Lawrence Cenotto
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Cat Vallejo: Emerging Arts Leader Look at SAM

Very early on in my role as one of SAM’s Emerging Arts Leader Interns, our mentor, David Rue, asked us to write down three personal or professional goals we wished to achieve during our time here at SAM. To be completely honest, I was all over the place during the first few weeks, as I was struggling to find where I fit into the museum to be a successful intern. Despite feeling this way, the one thing that I was certain and hopeful for was to make SAM a place I happily call home: be a part of SAM and SAM be a part me.

As a student at the University of Washington Bothell, being my whole self and feeling at home is what truly made me happier than I ever imagined. In order to feel that same happiness at SAM, I tried to be fully present by having a positive mind and heart. I reminded myself to be my bubbly and kind self and to be comfortable with the people around me. This was way easier said than done.

On top of feeling like a lost intern, I was already struggling with adjusting to a lifestyle that was the exact opposite of what I was used to. I wanted to be a big fish in a little pond that everyone looked up to for guidance. However, being in a new, urban city where nobody really knew me meant this wasn’t the case anymore. I felt lost between the Cat that grew up in California and the adult Cat that lives in Washington. Where would I go? Who am I supposed to be? With all these new changes and heavy feelings, I thought to myself, “I don’t how I’m going to achieve my goal or if I’m even going to get there. Good luck.”

Priya Frank and Seohee Kim are the two mentors I give all my gratitude to for guiding me through my struggles. Talking to them made me realize that I was still a tiny fish in a huge pond that needed to be willing to grow and learn from others. This was a reminder to be humble and to remember that learning and growing never stops, even when you think you’re at the top. Growing only starts when you are uncomfortable, yet willing to feel and embrace that discomfort with an open mind and heart to learn something new. Their kind words of wisdom touched my heart.

After this realization, I started to feel like I could reach my goal. The big project we had the opportunity to do was the My Favorite Things Tour. For this project, I researched different art pieces, connected them to real-life experiences, centered everything around a specific theme, and proudly presented my work to the public. Wow! I will always remember our first practice of walking around and talking about the different artworks we had in mind for our tours. I knew I was on the right track in connecting the art to my personal journeys, but there was much more research and practice that needed to be completed.

After this practice I was motivated to reach out to the curators to learn more about the different art pieces, which was exactly what I did. It was so inspiring getting to hear from and learn from the curators and see how passionate they are. I also learned more on my own by reading books about the artwork and artist. Most importantly, completing all the work would not even be half of what it was without my fellow colleague and friend Lauren Farris, the other Emerging Arts Leader Intern. Working closely with her gave us the space to learn from each other’s personal and professional experiences, all while sharing this internship together. I remember practicing our tours in the galleries, just talking through them while sitting down, and always changing our art pieces and stories every time we practiced. Being by each other’s side allowed us to be vulnerable and really push through to make these tours happen.

When the day finally came, we were there for each other to see all our hard work come to life. That is just so amazing to me because there were so many people and experiences collaborating to create something great. Swimming with the big fish was not so scary after all. As I said during my tour when I was talking about Childe Hassam’s Spring on West 78th Street, “from this painting and my experience with my SAM family, I learned that home is not a place, but a feeling.” Saying these words with my whole heart, showed me that I was able to reach my one and only goal, despite being so lost in everything else. This internship was more than I hoped for and now that it has come to a close I can truly say that I was a part of SAM and SAM will always be a part of me. SAM is a place I happily call home.

Cat Vallejo, SAM 2019 Emerging Arts Intern

Photos: Natali Wiseman
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Authentic relationships, living museums, and oysters: SAM goes to New Orleans

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) brings together museums across the country—representing more than 35,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, institutions, and corporate partners—to share knowledge, best practices, and standards of excellence. Every year, AAM hosts an Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo, featuring interactive sessions covering all aspects of the museum field, keynote talks, book readings, vendor presentations, and parties. Held in a different city every year, the host city often guides the content and experience of the attendees, especially when it comes to doing what museum professionals love to do: visit museums. Well, and eat.

This year’s annual meeting was held May 19–22 in New Orleans. Here are three reflections from SAM staff on what they learned, experienced, and ate in NOLA.

David Rue, Public Engagement Associate

Ongoing (and authentic) relationship building is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the 2019 AAM annual meeting. After connecting with Lauren Zelaya, Brooklyn Museum’s Assistant Curator of Public Programs and Nico Wheadon, Studio Museum Harlem’s former Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement in 2017, we felt a mutual desire to continue a professional relationship of idea-sharing and thought that AAM would be a great opportunity to continue the conversation. In our session, we provided three different institutional perspectives on how to use public and educational programs to implement racial equity work both internally and externally. Getting to know and learn from my co-presenters undoubtedly help me grow as an arts professional. It’s a prime example of how important it is to reach out to those that are doing work that is similar to your own.   

Apart from a fun and exciting panel discussion, it was also my first time visiting New Orleans and it’s safe to say I fell in love. The city, the people, the art, and THE FOOD! It felt great representing SAM at such a large conference and in such a beautiful part of the world.

Philip Nadasdy, Associate Director of Public Engagement

Beyond full days of sessions, keynotes, and meetups, one of the distinct benefits of any AAM annual meeting is the opportunity to visit cultural organizations that help comprise the host city’s identity—and there is no city like New Orleans. A more recent addition to the city is the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum which opened in 2013 with a mission “to promote community empowerment through remembering the past, sharing stories of the present, and planning for the future.”

The museum resides on the corner of a residential street in a six-room house converted into gallery and programming spaces. The Lower Ninth Ward is perhaps most commonly known as the neighborhood hit hardest by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the Living Museum tells a more comprehensive history of the neighborhood’s geography, people, and culture—while amplifying the ongoing and future community-based efforts to strengthen the lives of people living in the Lower Ninth.

While the museum’s footprint is small, the experience is complex in approach, rigorous in interpretation, and deeply effective. The museum takes the long view of the neighborhood’s history: the geologic and natural ecosystem before land development and industry; Indigenous cultures of the region; colonial beginnings as sugar plantation land; the subsequent growth as a predominantly Black and working-class neighborhood, rich in culture and with an inclination towards resiliency and a do-it-ourselves activism, amidst historically racist and neglectful policymaking and lack of infrastructure investment.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath are given rightful attention, providing deeper insight into the stories of the residents through oral histories, photographs, art installations, and video that underline the devastation not only of the storm and floods, but of the ongoing systemic forms of oppression and racism that members of the community faced (and continue to confront) as their homes and livelihoods were destroyed.

As in its name, this is a living museum, and while the Lower Ninth’s history is on full display, so too are the ongoing efforts to rebuild and strengthen the community, in which the museum plays an important role through wellness, arts, afterschool programming for youth, and hosting community wealth building opportunities, professional training, and education programming for adults.

In 2012, the city began limiting voyeuristic Hurricane Katrina bus tours of the Lower Ninth, but similar versions continue to operate today. The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum stands as an antidote to that exploitative version of learning about a place and people—a museum built by and for the community that tells their own stories.

Rachel Eggers, Manager of Public Relations

I arrived in New Orleans the day before sessions began, just as night began to fall. I walked the streets of the French Quarter and posted up at a red-lit oyster bar to experience Gulf oysters; in Seattle it’s all brine and mignonette, there it’s horseradish, hot sauce, and conversation. I was in love with the city already.

Over the next two days, I attended sessions on public policy, crisis communications, and participatory exhibitions. A standout was the conversation-starting keynote by art curator and writer Kimberly Drew. My favorite session was TrendsWatch, the annual forecasting report led by Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums. In her work, she identifies what the field needs to be planning for. She identified five trends: truth & trust, blockchain technology, decolonization efforts, homelessness & housing insecurity, and self-care. Phrases that I heard throughout the conference resonated with me and how I approach my work and the work we’re trying to do at SAM: bearing witness, democratic meaning-making, and mission-led social justice stances. 

The annual meeting is more than, well, meetings. I also caught a performance by Big Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson of the Guardians of the Flame and a reading by legendary culinary historian Jessica B. Harris. At the amazing closing night party, I walked through the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which simply astounded me. On view was Vernacular Voices, featuring work by Self-Taught, Outsider and Visionary artists; the paintings of Clementine Hunter were a revelation.

On my final morning, I took a streetcar (no, it wasn’t called Desire) to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where I saw photographs from Rich Frishman’s Ghosts of Segregation series; Will Ryman’s massive gold-painted log cabin America, chronicling the violence of capitalism; and yes, a monumental mural painting by Clementine Hunter.

I fell in love with New Orleans; from the cats in the streets and the live jazz and Sazeracs at Snug Harbor, to the gigantic Gulf oysters and the stunning art and people, it’s a place with a gift for life. I left inspired about the possibilities for cities and for cultural institutions to better people’s lives. 

– Rachel Eggers, Manager of Public Relations

Images: David Rue with co-presenters Chayanne Marcano (Studio Museum of Harlem) and Lauren Zelaya (Brooklyn Museum). Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, photos: Philip Nadasdy. Oyster-getting and gabbing with famed shucker “Stormin” Norman Conerly at Acme Oyster House. Harvesting Gourds near the African House and Wash Day Near Ghana House, Melrose Plantation (1959) by Clementine Hunter at the New Orleans Museum of Art, photos: Rachel Eggers.
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Meet SAM’s New Director, Amada Cruz

“I’m looking forward to continuing SAM’s commitment to welcoming everyone.”

– Amada Cruz

We are pleased to welcome Amada Cruz to the SAM family this September as the Museum’s next llsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, succeeding Kimerly Rorschach who will be retiring this fall. Amada joins us from the Phoenix Art Museum where she has served as its Sybil Harrington Director and CEO for the past four years. Amada brings with her more than 30 years of professional experience in the arts. In 2015, W Magazine named her one of the 11 most powerful female museum directors in America. She starts at SAM in September 2019 and we can’t wait to see what the future holds. Get to know SAM’s new director in this short interview with Amada and check out our press release for more on this exciting announcement.

SAM: Why were you interested in coming to Seattle and working at the Seattle Art Museum? 
Amada Cruz: So many reasons! The incredible collection, the generosity of its donors, and Kim’s legacy of excellence. Also, everyone loves Seattle. A great museum with a community of support in a great city. What’s not to love?

What excites you most about SAM’s permanent collection?
I know the contemporary art collection the best because it’s my field, but I love “general” museums because they offer entry points for everyone. I grew up going to the Art Institute in Chicago and The Met in NY, and I like getting lost in big museums, making discoveries. But, the most immediate thrill will be the newly reopening Seattle Asian Art Museum, which will be such a pleasure for me to discover and share with our audiences.

At the Phoenix Art Museum, you took many steps to make the museum more accessible and inclusive. Tell us about this work!
Phoenix is 40% Latinx, so we focused on welcoming that audience in a sustained way. My first interview was in Spanish for the local Spanish-language newspaper and the Univision station. That was important. I also diversified the staff to the point that 3 out of 5 of the senior staff are Latinx. That change affected everything, including programming decisions (more exhibitions by artists of color) and communications (welcoming of all). We initiated a bilingual program with a big banner over the front desk that reads, “Welcome. Bienvenidos.” It seemed like a small gesture, but the response was huge and (mostly) positive. But we also reached out to other groups, including our local Sikh community and now have a Sikh art gallery. I want everyone to feel like the museum belongs to them.

What do you think the biggest challenge is for museums today?  Remaining relevant when people are engaging with culture in so many different ways and with so much competition for attention. We live in a distracting world, so how do we get people to slow down enough to engage with art? It helps to have three distinct sites like SAM, each one offering a particular experience—the urban downtown space, a grand building in a public park, and a spectacular sculpture park by the water.

Which restaurant will you eat at first when you get to Seattle? 
Please send me recommendations! I’ll eat almost anything (once) but really love seafood . . . and wine.

Photo: Natali Wiseman
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Docents Defined: Nina Vichayapai

Are you a fan of the Seattle Asian Art Museum who loves discussing your favorite artworks? Consider volunteering as a docent at the Asian Art Museum when it reopens later this year! SAM is recruiting new docents to start training to lead tours of the newly installed galleries and you have until May 31 to apply.

Docents bring their unique interests and backgrounds to each tour they lead and that’s what makes them fun and engaging for SAM’s diverse audiences. A docent like Nina didn’t go to museum growing up but later found them to be an important part of her life and started leading tours with SAM to help others become invested in museum visits early in life. Find about more about Nina in the interview below!

SAM: Tell us about yourself. Why did you decide to become a docent?

Nina: I am an artist and studied at an art school in San Francisco. Since I was young, I loved making art and knew I wanted to become an artist. It wasn’t until I was older that I also learned to love looking at art. A huge part of my college education took place at museums and included wonderful opportunities to meet the people who help these spaces function. Growing up I never really visited museums and by the time I became an adult, I somehow fell into the impression that the museum was a space reserved for people unlike me and the stories being told there did not represent mine.

After seeing many different museums, I was blown away by how much these spaces offer our communities. By the time I finished college and decided to move back to Seattle I knew that as much as I wanted to continue making art, I also wanted to find opportunities which would allow me to tap into the joy I have for museums. Becoming a docent with the Seattle Art Museum was really the perfect outlet for that joy. I was especially compelled to become a docent given my previous background of apprehension toward museums. There are many people who avoid museums out of feeling excluded. Having once been one of those people, I have a lot of patience and understanding when it comes to sharing what I think we can all learn from art.

What’s the best part of being a docent?

The best part of being a docent for me is definitely getting to see all the incredible connections people make to their own lives all just from looking at art. I’ve worked primarily with younger students and whether we are looking at a piece from the Pacific Northwest or from somewhere far away, whether it was made last year or hundreds of years ago, I’m always so thrilled to see how quickly the students will begin to relate the work to their own lived experiences.

Another thing I must mention as being a huge highlight is the wealth of resources we have access to! Through the online database, which docents can access, and the library at SAM, there is so much to learn about the art in SAM’s collections. Docents are always contributing to this wealth as well. For any art lover, it’ s really a dream and very fun to get lost in exploring the archives.

What’s your favorite work of art to tour?

My favorite installation to tour is Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. This installation includes the work of Saya Woofalk along with pieces from many other artists, so there is a lot to work within the gallery for the many different tours we do. But what I love most is seeing how students light up when they step into that space. The whole installation really breaks a lot of preconceived ideas about what art and museums are supposed to look like. And the concept of empathy is always one that generates really deep and often touching conversations.

What’s your most memorable touring experience?

I gave an Elements of Art tour to a particularly enthusiastic class once. They walked in without much prior experience of talking about art, but by the end of our tour they couldn’t contain their excitement at discovering the different elements we had just discussed in every artwork we passed. It was as if I had revealed a magician’s trick to them and their glee was really contagious!

What advice do you have for people applying for the docent program?

Visit museums! Not just art museums too. Seattle has so many great museums. I think it’s important to get a feel for the culture and approach to education unique to each museum. It helped me understand what qualities I felt were important and how I could bring that to my role as a docent.

– Yaoyao Liu, Seattle Asian Art Museum Educator

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Docents Defined: Erin Bruce

SAM is now recruiting new docents to start training for the reopening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. You don’t need to be an art historian or a teacher to apply! In fact, SAM docents have a variety of interests and experiences. Having a diverse group of docents is how we’re able to offer tours that are engaging to all visitors. Read below and find out more about docents like Erin Bruce who volunteer their time at the museum.

If you still want to learn more about being a docent? Join SAM staff and current docents at our Docent Open House on May 16 from 6–7 pm! Or, apply now to the docent program. Applications are accepted through May 31.

SAM: Tell us about yourself. Why did you decide to become a docent?

Erin Bruce: I have always been inspired by all things visual, whether it is nature, a building, a room and especially art. I studied art in college and made art whenever possible. Now I am a technical stock trader and rely on charts for my work—more visual interpretation! It was a three-year wait for a new docent class to start for me after a friend told me about SAM. The chance to participate with our museum is an honor.

What’s the best part about being a docent?

The best part is all of it: meeting energetic, generous, knowledgeable people; constant learning; leading a tour of young people and engaging them in the art and history of objects. It’s all gratifying. SAM’s collections are a wondrous gift to our city and special exhibitions join and expand experiences as well.

What is your favorite work of art to tour at the Asian Art Museum?

The Deer Scroll. Calligrapher Koetsu and painter Sotatsu collaborated to create this iconic masterpiece. Our 30 feet of the original 72 feet contains 12 poems from the Shin Kokinshu, which took four years to write. The beauty and harmony transports you to another time and place.

What’s your most memorable touring experience?

Tours were scheduled the week before Mother’s Day so I made a gallery activity “A Gift for Mom.” Given one exhibition room students got to pick an object that they would give to their Mom if they could. It revealed so many wonderful things such as what objects in our Asian art collection young people were most drawn to, what they found beautiful and why. Crafting future tours improved since I had learned some of their favorite objects. The chance to interact with young people is yet another joy and benefit of leading a school tour.

What advice do you have for people applying for the docent program?

Your interests and life experiences offer wonderful and unique perspectives. You will discover and explore the vast and layered connections of art to our lives. It is so much fun.

– Yaoyao Liu, Seattle Asian Art Museum Educator

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