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Documenting Diversity in SAM’s Permanent Collections

Museums across the country are contending with the structural racism that shapes their collections and organizations. One component of this process, in striving for transparency, is assessing the individuals and communities who are—and who are not—represented in these collections.

In the summer of 2019, SAM’s Curatorial Department began the challenging—and ongoing—work of collecting data to better understand the diversity of the museum’s permanent collection. While I helped initiate this research, it was carried forward by one amazing and dedicated curatorial intern, Rachel Kim, whose time, energy, and care laid essential groundwork for future initiatives to increase the representation of artists of color at SAM.

The methodology that guides this undertaking is shaped by a study titled “Diversity of Artists in Major U.S. Museums,” published in March 2019 by a cross-departmental group of colleagues at Williams College in the departments of Statistics, Mathematics, Art, and Art History. The study used crowdsourcing to mine the online databases of 18 major American museums, inferring data related to artists’ ethnicities, genders, and geographic origins. As in the Williams College study, we focused our attention on artists whose identities are known to us, first conducting research to manually calculate representation by gender and, later on, ethnicity, within SAM’s permanent collection. The Williams College study relied on the crowdsourcing platform Amazon Mechanical Turk to gather data and, like much of such data collection, is subject to human error. Still, the study found that 85% of works in major U.S. museum collections are by white artists, and that 87% are by men. Works by Black artists make up just 1% of collections; works by Asian artists, 9%; and works by Latinx artists, 3%.[1]

I should pause here and note that the complexities and sensitivities of this research are many—there are often limited resources, including limited biographical information, available on a number of artists; many artists’ identities and orientations are intersectional or non-binary, and the application of one singular identity for the sake of data collection reduces the complexity of many artists’ backgrounds and biographies; and most important of all is how the artist personally chooses to identify. With this in mind, Rachel Kim thoughtfully reflected, “No person’s identity can be relegated to simple formulas and spreadsheet labels. With this recognition, I made it a priority to extract source material on an artist from the words of the artists themselves before turning to secondary accounts.” Many museums are beginning to conduct similar data collection and research, and some are even developing surveys to be sent to living artists during the acquisitions process; this way, the artist may self-identify and share details related to their own biography as they would like for it to be recorded.[2] It is crucial to acknowledge another limitation as well: this first phase of data collection, focusing on “individual, identifiable” artists, inherently privileges a Western perspective and valuation of a singular object with a singular, documented maker.[3]

Yet, as nuanced and imperfect as this data may be, it acts as a critical blueprint that reflects what SAM—like too many museums around the country—has known and knows must be corrected. We must confront the inherent biases and narratives that collecting histories, including our own, perpetuates. Serving the museum’s larger institutional goal of addressing racial inequity within its walls and collection, this research further underscores the need for increased investment in 20th- and 21st-century artists of color.

Focusing on the museum’s modern and contemporary collection as one example, roughly 7% of works are by artists of color. However, since 2010, this collection has also seen the number of works by Black artists increase by over one-third. Many of these acquisitions are directly linked to the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize, a $10,000 award offered biannually to an early career Black artist, along with a solo exhibition at SAM. The first prize was awarded in 2009, and SAM has consistently acquired works by the exhibiting artists in the years since.

Looking at another data sample, SAM acquired approximately 1,360 works by 20th- and 21st-century artists since 2010. Of these, roughly 48% are by artists of color. In addition, well over two times the funds were spent on the purchase of 110 works by artists of color compared to 94 works by white artists. These numbers are heartening and signal the progress that an intentional approach can accomplish, though we acknowledge that our work is only beginning.

This research and its analysis is far from definitive or complete, but it is a helpful tool—a compass, perhaps—that can help guide current and future actions to correct the systemic and institutional racism that has invariably shaped the museum field. Supporting, representing, and investing in artists of color through exhibitions and acquisitions is just one part of this anti-racist work for SAM.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

[1] The authors importantly see this study as a companion to the 2014-15 “Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey” conducted by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which found that 72% of staff at its member institutions identify as white. It will take more than simply acquiring more works by artists of color to correct racial inequity within museums––equal attention must be given to staffing, workplace culture, board membership, programs, exhibitions, and collections.
[2] Frances Lloyd-Barnes, Head of Collections Information Management at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), further problematizes and offers thoughts on what it means to document diversity in this way: https://new.artsmia.org/stories/documenting-diversity-how-should-museums-identify-art-and-artists/
[3] SAM is a comprehensive museum, which means that its permanent collection houses artworks by artists and makers across time and place, from antiquity to the present, and we cannot always know the identities of an artwork’s maker or makers. If we expand the scope of our data to include works by artists whose specific identities are unknown to us, or perhaps worked as a community or collectively, the museum’s holdings of works by artists of color hovers around 58%. This high percentage is due in no small part to SAM’s foundational collection of historic Asian art, renowned collection of African art, and strong representation of Indigenous—especially Northwest Coast Native—art.

SAM Connects Community through Letters in Quarantine

Whether seemingly big or small, sustaining connection is more critical than ever. Jenae Williams, Exhibitions and Publications Associate, and Seohee Kim, Division Coordinator for Education and Public Engagement, recently started writing letters to stay connected to their community in quarantine. They’ve shared a Q&A of their wonderful project below.

Not only do handwritten letters support the US Postal Service, brighten up someone’s day, and remind others that they are not alone, but right now your letters can support community by showing love to Chinatown-International District! If you’re feeling inspired, please check out Love Letters to Chinatown-International District #CIDLoveLetters. Share your love letters, and the Wing Luke Museum will collect and showcase submissions in a digital exhibition as part of the Wing Luke Museum’s Resilience Campaign. Deadline is May 18! May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month so we hope you will take some encouragement and inspiration from this post and write a letter to Seattle’s International District or support the USPS by sending a letter a friend or loved one!

#LettersInQuarantine

What first inspired you to write letters to people in quarantine?

Jenae: I genuinely miss seeing my colleagues at SAM every day, and I was first inspired by my managers Chiyo Ishikawa and Tina Lee, who do so well at checking in on many of us at SAM. Later, I read about how the US Postal Service is in danger of going out of business, which upset me deeply. USPS provides 600,000 jobs, delivers essential items (medicine! voting ballots!), and it’s the only mailing service that reaches every household across the nation, no matter how rural. I am also reminded that compared to private mailing services, sending a letter or priority mail with the USPS service is equitable. It costs me the same amount of money to send a letter to a friend locally as it does to send a letter to my grandma in Hawaii. 

Seohee: I’ve wanted to do something like this for a while, but I’d always brushed it to the back of my mind because I was unsure of when or how to begin. However, after over a month of being indoors and focusing solely on work, I needed a simple but creative outlet to allow myself to detach from the screen and practice self-care. Then, I was having a brainstorming video call with my dear colleague, friend, and muse, Priya, who showed me the beautiful postcards she’d been designing for her close ones. Insert mind spark here. A few days later, I saw Jenae’s heartwarming Instagram story showing support to USPS with her letters to friends and family, and I felt the need to (finally) take action. 

Ellsworth Kelly stamps!

Where can we buy our own Ellsworth Kelly stamps?

Jenae: USPS released these stamps in 2019, so they may be hard to find. But check your local post office. Some locations, like mine, still have leftover sheets in stock. I’m excited for the Ruth Asawa stamps that are scheduled to be released this year! 

Postcard coloring book from Daiso!

Tell us about the stationery/paper that you’re using for this project?

Jenae: I’m using whatever paper I have at home right now. My mom gave me a pad of stationary for this project that pays homage to the early days of airmail so I’m using that first. With this paper, I like that after you’re finished writing, you fold its edges up, and it turns into its own envelope. I also have Hello Kitty stationery from my childhood that I’ll use later as well.

Seohee: I have been a hoarder of all things stationery since middle school, so I’ve been making use of my ridiculous collection. Among the bunch, my go-to have been these Daiso coloring books that have various images of flowers on the front and postcard layouts on the back of each page. In my free time and whenever I’m feeling stressed, I tear out a page to color while bopping to some good ol’ 90s K-pop. It’s been surprisingly healing for me, and possibly the only routine I’ve maintained over the past four weeks.

What was the response to your letter-writing project after you posted about it on Instagram?

Jenae: A lot of people responded with their address, but some just responded to say that they loved the stamps. I’m so glad. Maybe they’ll go out and buy their own. I especially love that I received notes from friends who I haven’t talked to in a long time.

Seohee: Excitement and support! I received quite a few responses from friends around the country with their addresses! To be honest, I wasn’t expecting them to be as open to sharing such personal information, but that might just stem from the trust issues I’ve developed after watching nothing but serial killer documentaries on Netflix for the past two months. 

Write a love letter to the International District!

Have you found writing letters to be much different than writing emails? Any early letter-writing tips?

Jenae: I send work emails every day, but letters are definitely a different form of writing. I’m still learning to embrace the time and thoughtfulness it takes. If your thoughts start to run amok (this happens to me frequently) as you’re writing, just go with it. I have to remind myself that it’s OK to show my inner life sometimes.

Seohee: Yes! I’ve found that they’re much more personal because I’m not writing with a specific intent in mind as I would for, say, a work email. It allows me to pause and really think about each person and what individual messages I want to send that might bring even a tiny bit of joy to their day. Not exactly a tip, but I’ve been having fun picking out individual postcards based on the image of the flower and their meaning. It adds just another hint of personalization to the entire experience. Also, I’ve been laminating my postcards with packing tape before mailing them out so that people have the option to wipe them down with a sanitizing cloth upon receiving them—just another COVID-19 precaution from a germaphobe. 

Finally, what are you hoping to get from all of this?

Jenae: I hope one of my letters will be a bright spot to someone in quarantine and help them feel connected to me/humanity in a small way.

Seohee: I hope something as small as this could be a reason for someone to smile amidst the chaos that has become our new normal. If we can keep the web of connection and small joys going/growing, even better!

Images: Lauren Farris, Seohee Kim, Jenae Williams. 

SAM Connects: Youth Artists Reflect on COVID-19

Founded in 2007, The Seattle Art Museum’s Teen Arts Group (TAG) is an intensive program for highly opinionated high school-aged youth who are interested in learning about themselves and the world through art. TAG is designed to cultivate the voice and leadership of diverse young people who share their passion for the power of art to build community.

When the world came to a halt, TAG put that passion into the power of zines. In this publication, you will find creative expressions addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected the lives of Seattle-area youth. Their responses range from life before stay home orders to the impact of school closures and everything in between. What they created together is a powerful, moving zine titled, Peering Through the Looking Glass: Youth Artists Connect and Reflect on COVID-19.

As the world continues to navigate this pandemic, it is vital that those of us who work alongside, support, teach, and love young folks, do not exclude them in these conversations about the future. Our youth have a big stake in the future and they should be at every table advocating and fighting for it alongside the adults in their lives. They recognize the value and necessity of working together and using this shared experience to heal and move forward. The opening of the zine, created solely by the members of TAG, says it best.

Images: Alex depicts the loneliness this pandemic has caused and finding ways to reach the ones they love and miss. One work in a series of four that Lucia created for the zine. Grae & Zya collaborated to pair Grae’s original poetry on top of Zya’s designs.

SAM Connects with Artist-in-Residence Kimberly Deriana

Your next chance to experience the Olympic Sculpture Park through the Indigenous lens of SAM’s winter resident is tonight, February 27 from 7 to 9 pm! Architectural designer and artist Kimberly Deriana (Mandan/Hidatsa) has spent the last two months working in the park researching, offering workshops, and constructing a temporary installation. Deriana has used her residency as a space for sharing Indigenous knowledge surrounding the many uses of cattail materials. The temporary cattail and cedar structure she has created is a space where everyone is invited to gather and experience cultural celebration. The event will include performances by Aiyanna Jade Stitt and Hailey Tayathy, and storytelling and song by Kayla Guyett and Paige Pettibon.

Kimberly Deriana specializes in sustainable, environmental Indigenous architecture, housing, and planning. Deriana’s methodologies focus on incorporating Indigenous lifestyle practices in relation to past, present, and future, designing for the 7 generations. We sat down with her to learn a little more about her experience as SAM’s artist in residence and to learn more about her creative process.

SAM: What goals do you have for your residency at the Olympic Sculpture Park? 

KIMBERLY DERIANA: I want to activate the park through an Indigenous lens. As an architect designer and somebody who loves urban design, I’ve been drawn to this park since I first moved here. Part of creating visibility is bringing other people along in the process and giving them opportunities, too. I really try to include people and families who have been doing this work for years while giving new urban Native people outlets in every project on which I work.

This residency is a learning opportunity for me; the way I enjoy learning is to involve others. It’s about the way we learn as a community, the way we make as a community, and the way we approach being in the world and sustainability. When you’re gathering cattails, there’s an appropriate time to gather and there are appropriate places to gather. Learning all of that protocol has been really eye-opening. Because I grew up as an urban Native and wasn’t always shown those protocols, I try to make a conscious effort to create space and time for the protocol knowledge as an adult.

Tell us about the workshops and youth that you worked with to include Indigenous communities.

I’ve always done art and design but being in the art scene is a new space for me; I wanted to explore the co-creation process. Sharing resources is an important component of the process, I believe. This space has a very educational, institutional vibe and it lends itself to the scope needed for community workshops. The scale of the work required to enliven the space needs many hands. The piece itself is practice and healing work.

The collaborators and I were here most weekends in January and February. Since we are on Suquamish and Duwamish traditional lands, one weekend we had Indigenous teachers from Suquamish. These amazing women who are educators for and from their community—Tina, Jackson, and Kippy Joe— and the amount of information and knowledge that they share  in four hours is just indescribable. You can’t get that on YouTube or from a professor. You have to experience their oral teachings to begin to understand the richness and depth of the knowledge.

We had three Indigenous youth that day, and then we had a couple visitors just stop by who were interested in what we were doing. We had time to teach them and they got to learn. Every weekend I’ve had at least one Indigenous teen come in and help work with us through a partnership with yəhaw̓.

What are some of the historical uses of cattail mats?

In this region, mats were traditionally used as sheathing for summer structures. Mats are used all over the world, globally and indigenously for different surfaces. In the Plateau, Plains, Woodlands, and Southeast regions, mats are used for protection and warmth on their architectural structures.

Cattails have a multitude of uses. They protect us. When they’re just in the ground they clean the water and remove toxins. They can be food; they can be shelter; they can be water. When gathering cattails in the right spots, their uses extend beyond those listed so that one can understand the sustainability that the plant provides. Plant knowledge leads to understanding sustainability; sustainability leads to healing; healing leads to understanding their sacredness. I want everyone to know this.

I’m trying to make paper with cattails because I think that’s a more respectful use of them since they were gathered in the late fall season. I am super excited to do more scientific research on the sustainability of cattails, learning more traditional knowledge about them, and weaving. I realize you can approach a project and commit to working with a material, but then all these other sacred teachings come up, such as  how to work with other materials and plants. It’s not homogenous when we’re learning about our plant relatives.

Why have some of the cattails been cut and others left long and uneven?

As I started the process of creating this temporary installation with cattails some teachers said it was okay to gather now. When we made some mats, I knew they were not ideal materials and then, in the middle of the month, I learned that you should gather cattails at the end of summer for making mats. For this reason, some of the mats are trimmed and others are raggedy, in order to reveal the imperfection of the process. I like to break things apart until they become abstract, so that even though I’m using really traditional materials, the way I use them means you can’t necessarily tell what it is. For example, maybe your eye reads it as hair or as a bone or antlers. The raggedy mats—having them be more than one thing–helped convey that abstract concept. I think that process was kind of successful.

My architectural background makes me interested in exploring this building and wall system and I started to research and dissect like I normally do for a project. In architecture, you’re always researching and then drawing your theory. In art, you’re fabricating your theory. That’s when all this new information appeared to me. When you start to source your material and put it together, like, “This is why you have to harvest at a certain time and why you have to know where to gather and to get the reeds that are a certain height.” There are just all these little steps that make the process more efficient and that our ancestors knew and had good engineering minds for. I’m still doing it by trial and error and trying to find mentors.

The description of the temporary installation mentions that the structure is a portal for healing. How is this present in the work that is in the PACCAR Pavilion?

The sculpture forms a circular arbor and basket-like space. It incorporates some of the knowledge of the medicine wheel into the directions of the space and the layout. The teachings of the medicine wheel helps to orient our bodies with the land, plants and animals, nature and natural forces. In Plains tribes, you enter from the East like the sunrise. Here, in the West, a lot of structures face the water. All of the weavings that we made with Tina and Kippy are on that side and create filtered views to the water as much as possible since the water is so special. The North can reference the future, moving on, and death in some ways, too. The northern, open view gives people the opportunity to see that beautiful view of the park. The cattail threshold symbolizes a doorway into the future. A sustainable future holds the promise of healing.

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

Photos: Jen Au

SAM Connects Community to Gallery Spaces

SAM’s Community Gallery has been displaying work from artists of all ages located throughout Washington State for over a decade. Shows featuring photography, mixed media, sewing and textile arts, ceramics, and 2-D and 3-D mixed media have filled this space over the years. Youth, SAM staff and volunteers, community organizations, nonprofits supporting arts programming, and schools and classes have had their art displayed on the ground floor of SAM’s downtown location, serving as a colorful reminder of creativity and community building.

2019 staff art show

Before I worked at SAM, I installed a show in the Community Gallery representing a multitude of different artists who connected with the Yesler Terrace community and beyond. It brought many community members to SAM for the first time and the artists involved in the show expressed the feeling of importance that came with having their work displayed in the museum.

With the beginning of a new decade, SAM is taking a new approach to the Community Gallery. We are working to show art from communities and artists who are underrepresented in the museum world due to systematic oppression. We are looking for artwork by and for artists of color, queer artists, disabled artists, youth and elderly artists, immigrant and refugee
communities, and low-income artists.

Naramore award ceremony, May 2019

We now have a simple application that outlines our equity goals for the space and how the Community Gallery can be used. Take a look at our call for art to learn more and apply to hang your community’s artwork downtown at SAM.

We are also adding more Community Gallery space in a city where art spaces are becoming more and more tenuous. The renovation and expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum created a new, additional Community Gallery space. Once it opens in February, the Asian Art Museum Community Gallery will feature works by and for the Asian Pacific Islander community in Seattle throughout its inaugural year.

We’ll also be curating our first youth-focused gallery space downtown, featuring a Teen Arts Group-curated exhibition of youth artists for its premiere show. SAM is always working to extend and expand the accessibility and connections within our community and the updated Community Gallery guidelines are one way we can’t wait to share with you!

– Jenn Charoni, SAM Public Engagement Associate

Photos: Jen Au & Natali Wiseman