This is my final week as the museum’s Director. When I inaugurated SAM’s blog in September of 2009, I imagined that this would become a place for demystifying the inner workings of an art museum. I hope it has served this purpose on a few occasions. My colleagues have certainly made good use of SOAP as a space for sharing their deep expertise as well as their great enthusiasm for what is happening everyday at the museum. I’d like to use this, my last SOAP contribution, as a chance to offer reflections on what has transpired at SAM recently and why I am humbled by the experience of having served as a leader here.
The Seattle Art Museum is always busy. This past week has been no exception. On Tuesday, members began celebrating the opening of two new exhibitions at SAM Downtown—Beauty & Bounty and Reclaimed—both of which were organized by curators, Patti Junker and Marisa Sánchez, using the best local objects. These projects are now installed by SAM’s talented design team accompanied by an array of educational complements that should enhance their experience by all. Colleagues here are ready to embark on a full summer of programming that will animate all three SAM sites, including temporary site-specific installations already on view at the Olympic Sculpture Park and screenings of a series of Bollywood films out of doors in Volunteer Park held in conjunction with the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas that begins July 15th. Weekly camps for kids start on July 11th. This will be a busy summer.
Yesterday, Charlie Wright, SAM’s Board Chair, announced that the museum has hired the next Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art—Catharina Manchanda. Catharina will be a tremendous new addition to the professional team at SAM, I am sure. She brings personal warmth, impeccable scholarly credentials and deep museum experience—having worked previously at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Guggenheim, MoMA, and most recently at the Wexner Center for the Arts—to this community. Look forward to what Catharina does here at SAM.
My last meeting with our Board of Trustees also took place this week. SAM can boast that it has one of the most respected boards of any art museum in this country. It has always been gratifying for me to report to them. This week, after much hard work by all, I was able to share the good news that SAM would end its fiscal year (on June 30th) on solid financial and creative footings. This past year has been an unqualified success for SAM in terms of our service to this community. (click here to see those results on our new dashboard) Our membership stands at an all-time high, and total visitation will approach 1 million this year across the three sites. This has truly been a team effort and everyone here deserves a large share of credit for this positive result.
After the board meeting ended, I was surprised to be joined by colleagues and trustees in a celebration of my tenure at SAM. There are few things that I like less than goodbyes, so you can be sure that this was not my idea. I could not help, however, but feel honored by friends who chose to spend the end of an already long work day reminiscing about what has been accomplished here over the past two years. Charlie Wright and Maggie Walker, SAM’s board President, made too-kind comments and an object that had been on an easel throughout the gathering was unveiled. I was speechless.
Tom Barwick, an honorary trustee, had chosen this occasion to announce that he would donate a major painting by Rockwell Kent, Greenland Gothic, to SAM. Tom is a quiet person by nature but SAM has long benefitted from his philanthropy. Our curator of American Art, PattiJunker, bears the name of his late, beloved wife, Ann M. Barwick in her official title, and Tom helped endow this critical post at the institution. His outstanding taste when it comes to American art knows few rivals, and anything he might choose to donate is bound to be significant.
It happens that I have a history with Greenland Gothic, one that Tom knew as well. The painting had once hung on the walls of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, in San Francisco where I grew up. Indeed, I saw it there on a nearly daily basis after I took my first job in an art museum as the National Endowment for the Arts Intern in the American Paintings Department at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, in the late 1980s. The painting was at the time on loan from a private collection. Tom subsequently acquired the work and while we had discussed the picture on multiple occasions, he never told me his plans for it. On Tuesday, he promised to give it to SAM so that it can be enjoyed on a permanent basis by the public here in Seattle.
SAM could not wish for a finer example of Rockwell Kent’s mature work than Greenland Gothic. Kent was something of a renegade in American cultural life throughout the first half of the 20th century. His very best landscapes, and this is unquestionably one of them, are epic. At once compositionally severe and coloristically pure, Greenland Gothic exudes skillful confidence. Here, Kent celebrates the remote grandeur of an arctic landscape—with rock formations rising like Medieval spires in the background—and suggests the relative smallness of human presence through the man and his sled at left. The figure is self-possessed, and while at rest, one senses that he will soon resume cutting a tight, linear swath through the ice. The clarity and restraint with which Kent accomplishes this timeless, yet fully modern representation is as breathtaking as the sense of chill that pervades the image. For me, Greenland Gothic will always be an image that inspires a sense of calm as a prelude to progress. I want to thank Tom here for his vision and leadership.
There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when SAM is recognized as one of the great encyclopedic museums in the world. With great facilities and world class Asian, Native American, African, Modern and Contemporary, and American holdings, it probably deserves to be counted as such already. As major works of art—like Greenland Gothic—come into the public trust, SAM has a responsibility to share them broadly with the community here in Seattle, as well as far beyond this place. Every museum needs to care for its growing collections and find new ways to make them meaningful to audiences. In this way, museums can create life-changing experiences and prove their enduring value to society. I know that our curators, educators, conservators, designers, docents, and visitor services teams—as well as the other professionals who support those primary efforts—are fully up to this challenge. It has been a privilege for me to work with all of them, and for this Board of Trustees. Many will enjoy SAM’s teamwork in the days ahead, myself included.