All posts in “SAM Staff”

Get to Know SAM’s VSOs: Mark Howells

Everyone knows museums have security guards, but not everyone gets to know the people behind the uniform. We spend our days with the works of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, and Claude Monet, learning the nuances of each piece.

Johan Idema wonderfully describes museum guards in his book How To Visit An Art Museum as follows:

In order to put up with picture takers, soda smugglers and amateur art critics, guards require both the alertness of a police officer and the empathy of a kindergarten teacher. Consider museum guards the ground troops of the art world, who deserve your utmost respect. Some of them actually have amazing knowledge of art – former guards include painters such as Jackson Pollock and Sol LeWitt.

Many guards would speak with great passion, if only we asked them. Therein lies your opportunity. Have your questions ready and make your move when the gallery is quiet. Whatever the conversation, you will likely find that guards are able to offer what is often lacking in museums: human interaction and a proper conversation about art.

With Idema’s words in mind, we invite you to get to know us, SAM’s Visitor Services Officers (VSOs), with a monthly spotlight.

MARK HOWELLS
Raised between Portland and Bellingham, Mark Howells has been in the Puget Sound region for 30 years. He did IT Security and Audit before coming into the museum scene. In 1974, he worked his first museum job at the Oregon Historical Society as a junior summer docent. However, what lead him down the path to guest services was his experience in visitor studies during an extension course at the UW where he volunteered with the Washington State History Museum. Mark has worked at SAM since November 2015.

SAM: Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb comes to an end on August 28. Which artist have you enjoyed the most in this exhibit?

Howells: R. Crumb. He’s my generation. I had to hide his comix from my mom when I was a kid. Alternative comix were a fun part of my kid-hood, so I guess the nostalgia factor with Crumb was the best part.

What is your favorite piece of art currently on display at SAM?
The Bierstadt (Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast). He got the gray of the Pacific Northwest skies just right. That’s hard to do. I know that the location was just from his own imagination, but I go down to that area at the mouth of the Columbia quite a bit and I always look to see if I can find “that place.”

Who is your favorite artist?
I’m a historian, not an artist. Recently, I’ve studied up on local Pacific Northwest artists, so maybe Philip McCracken right now.

What advice can you offer to guests visiting SAM?
Ask questions. Don’t be intimidated. It’s just art.

Tell us more about you! When you’re not at SAM, what do you spend your time doing?
I like to hike around the Puget Sound and nerd-out on the history all around us. I’m trying to learn more about the built history in our communities. I do volunteer history work for the Camp Harmony Executive Order 9066 Committee (the Puyallup Fairgrounds was an Internment Camp in 1942) and I’m on the Archives Committee for the Queen Anne Historical Society doing glamorous digitization projects for them.

—Katherine Humphreys, SAM VSO

Mark Howells with Philip McCracken’s War God. Photo: Natali Wiseman.

The Art of Storytelling

Storytelling is an essential tool for expressing our beliefs, culture, and creativity. We spend our lives collecting and sharing stories. Whether we’re recounting a childhood memory or teaching others about a historical event, stories help us make sense of, and connect to, the world around us.

Visual art and storytelling are closely associated. When we view a work of art with narrative potential, we are naturally inclined to interpret it. To understand an object, we think about what we see as well as what the object and its artist are communicating. Questions like “Who are the figures?” or “What is happening in this scene?” prompt us to construct stories to explain the object. With their stories, we might see artists sustaining, subverting, or expanding on traditions they’ve inherited.

Black-Figured Amphora with Herakles and Athena

The proliferation of narrative content in Greek art, particularly vase-painting, began at the turn of the sixth century B.C.[i] Without any text to explain what’s happening in these vases, our familiarity with the actions or attributes of the figures depicted is crucial in identifying the characters, and through them, the story in which they are involved. The 6th-century B.C. black-figured storage jar, or amphora, depicts a mythological battle scene. The lion skin worn by one of the figures tells us that the figure is Herakles and refers to the circumstances of its acquisition, the Twelve Labors. With his foot mid-air, Herakles steps forward to charge at his opponents. Athena, armed with her helmet and spear, stands either in front of Herakles on one side of the vase and behind him on the reverse side of the vase. Two of the three hoplites hasten away but look back, indicating their retreat mode and an impending victory for Herakles and Athena. The alliance between Herakles and Athena alludes to Athena’s role as a divine comrade to great heroes in mythology and art. The nature of narrative art like this amphora requires the viewer to access prior knowledge of visual cues and iconography to read the content. As the viewer begins to study the meaningful features, the story unfolds.

Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper

Whereas the Greek vase was a propagation of an established narrative, Some Living American Women Artists/ Last Supper is a challenge to powerful narratives in the history of art and religion that have excluded women. The artist, Mary Beth Edelson, takes a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and replaces the heads of Jesus and his disciples with photographs of women artists. “The most negative aspect of organized religion, for me,” says Edelson, “was the positioning of power and authority in the hands of a male hierarchy that intentionally excluded women from access to these positions…[The work] gave me a double pleasure of presenting the names and faces of the many women artists who were seldom seen in the art world of 1972 as ‘the grand subject’—while spoofing male exclusivity in the patriarchy.”[ii] The resulting work showcases women in a male context and connects art with religion. The poster not only commemorates women artists but also highlights the struggles women have confronted in their professions. The act of women taking the place of men in an important historical painting overturns gender constructs. By appropriating the message of the male-dominated Last Supper painting, Edelson effectively asserts the voices of women and their place at the table.

Nnada Okumkpa (Senior Leader’s Mask)

The narrative content of objects is not necessarily fixed. Objects can convey different and new stories depending on their environment, use, and audience. Masks, for example, are not simply static images; they are imbued with social relationships and act as vehicles for powerful storytelling. Wooden masks were one of the many elements used in okumkpa, a masquerade tradition of the Afikpo of southeastern Nigeria.[iii] The play essentially functions as a community theater, touching on issues exclusively known to the people of the village. Although the play primarily ridicules and satirizes community members and relevant events, it offers moral commentary on how residents have behaved, establishing a standard for how they should behave. The masked players embody mma, a type of spirit intended to protect the players and provide them the freedom to perform without restraint. The senior leader of the performance would wear the Nnada Okumkpa, direct the skit, and narrate the action. When the masks became animated, they interacted with the viewer and situated him as a participant in a performance. While admiring the staging of the masquerade performance on the fourth floor gallery, I overheard a visitor commenting to her friend, “I’m waiting for one of them to start moving.” Though still and silent, the mask in the museum is a suggestive remnant of the movement, sound, and drama of performance.

Visual storytelling involves an intimate interaction between an object and its audience. When we choose to become immersed in the objects, they bring out very personal responses. We may laugh, cry, or even critique the story we believe we see in the objects. Our engagement with art ultimately keeps the stories alive. I hope you will find a good story during your next visit to SAM!

—Fiona Dang, SAM Curatorial Intern

[i] Mertens, Joan R. How to Read Greek Vases. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010.
[ii] “Mary Beth Edelson.” Avalanche. 1973.
[iii] Ottenberg, Simon. Masked Rituals of Afikpo: The Context of an African Art. Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1975.
Images: Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Work with schools : a librarian’s assistant telling a story to a group of Russian children in their native language, ca. 1910s.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed January 8, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-e5f7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Black-Figured Amphora with Herakles and Athena, Greek, 6th C., B.C. Gift of Norma and Amelia Davis, 82.83, Photo:Natali Wiseman. Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper, Mary Beth Edelson, 1971. Purchased from artist by Seattle Art Museum, 98.14, Photo: Mark Woods. Nnada Okumkpa (Senior Leader’s Mask), Chukwu Okoro, Gift of Simon Ottenberg, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2005.42, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

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.

Congratulations David Snead, 2014 Seattle Tourism Ambassador of the Year!

September 1, 2010 was my first day as a fresh-faced, green member of the Seattle Art Museum family, and the first day I met David Snead, Lead Admissions Representative and the 2014 recipient of the Seattle Tourism Ambassador of the Year Award!

Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of meeting David knows, and can appreciate, his talented ability to make ANYBODY smile and his love for the city of Seattle. He has an impressive wealth of knowledge about the Pacific Northwest including, and not limited to, history, geography, food, wine, and secrets and hidden gems in the region. For a newbie like me, he was a diamond found. And he continues to shine.

His winning nomination was selected from dozens by a regional judging committee that represented a cross section of the tourism industry. Judges reviewed nominees on criteria ranging from visitor service and high professional standards to job knowledge, professional leadership and influence, representing the industry and serving as examples of achievement and success.

During his five-year tenure at SAM, David has set the standard for customer service, knowledge of permanent and travelling exhibitions, as well as city knowledge, and proactive outreach to hotels and concierge professionals to educate them about SAM and its offerings.

In short, David is AMAZING.

What makes him so great?

Let’s put it this way, if David were a public figure or celebrity he wouldn’t have to kiss any baby’s forehead to win a vote (as a matter of fact, babies would probably jump up and walk to catch a glimpse of him), he’d have crowds cheering outside his private jet (Beyoncé would have a visual album dedicated to David), and people would travel great distances to see him (no stadium needed to know the ground beneath you shook), but he’s much too modest and humble to be THAT guy. Instead, he focuses on the visitor, the tourist, the wanderer, the friend looking to venture, explore, in search of a good time.

In the end, David is just an all-around phenomenal example of a human being who is loved by everyone at the Seattle Art Museum and we applaud him.

Cheers to you, my friend!

– Carlos Garcia, Seattle Art Museum’s Communications Coordinator