The Seattle Art Museum has weathered some major upheavals in the last five years.
First came the collapse of Washington Mutual, which wrought havoc with SAM’s finances (WaMu was the main renter of the office floors above the newly expanded museum on First Avenue).
Then came the departure of Michael Darling, SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art in July 2010, followed by the resignation of museum director Derrick Cartwright in June 2011.
Now at the helm is Kimerly Rorschach, who was announced as SAM’s future director in July and took office Nov. 5.
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And she’s announced the first big SAM show under her auspices: “Miró: The Experience of Seeing,” a survey of the last 20 years in the career of Spanish-born artist Joan Miró. The show, consisting of 48 paintings, sculptures and drawings from Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía, will open in February 2014.
In a conversation earlier this winter, Rorschach was warm and gracious, with an air of calm resolve. She has her eye out for potential improvements at SAM, but her comments about the future are carefully measured.
“Part of the management challenge is knowing when you know enough to make the right decision, and when you really need to learn more,” she says. “I’ve been following this museum for many years, and thought I knew a lot about it. But of course there’s a whole lot that I don’t know and that I’m learning.”
SAM’s situation, as she sees it: “There was this fantastic expansion: the expansion of the downtown building, the building of Olympic Sculpture Park and Volunteer Park becoming the Asian art museum. … Just as you guys were poised to take advantage of that and take off, boom! — the downturn. … Everything has to grind to a halt. There’s no time to think, reflect, build on these great achievements, move it forward. It becomes crisis management. Then there’s a period of time without leadership, and that’s also difficult for any institution.”
She hopes that with a new director finally in place, and with the arrival of Catharina Manchanda in August 2011 as SAM’s new curator of modern and contemporary art, the museum will be able to pick up where it left off before the downturn.
“We have these great facilities. We’ve dealt with the immediate difficulties. Now we have the challenges that we would have had, had all that stuff not happened,” she says. “What we have here in Seattle is this museum with incredible potential in this city that, to my outsider’s eyes, used to be a quiet regional place, but now is amazing: the way it’s developed, the businesses that are here, forward-thinking dynamic new economy, globally engaged, relatively thriving.”
It may help that, as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and a longtime member of AAMD, she has developed close connections with colleagues across the globe — connections that will bring noteworthy events and exhibits here.
Rorschach was born and raised in Houston, and was the founding director of Duke University’s Nasher Museum from 2005 until last year. Before that, she was director of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. Her first curatorial positions were at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Rorschach came to her interest in the visual arts relatively late. She went to Brandeis University thinking she’d study the history of the Soviet Union and learn Russian. But an art-history survey course totally changed her academic direction.
She was drawn initially to the historical aspects of the art she was seeing. Looking at works by American Revolutionary War artist John Trumbull or portrait painter Gilbert Stuart, she remembers thinking: “The hand that painted this shook George Washington’s hand — and here’s this painting. I can still look at it today.”
It was at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum that she had another epiphany: “I decided pretty early on I wanted a museum career as opposed to a teaching career … That’s where the art is. It’s in the museum.”
Rorschach wants to make sure that Seattle’s largest art museum has a good mix of exhibits and programs to offer local art lovers: “You want things that are familiar to people, but you also want new things. You want to respond to what your audience is interested in, but our mission is educational. … I think you’re going to see an increased emphasis on modern art and contemporary art.”
The Miró show fits in with that. He is, she says, a terrific artist who’s very significant in the history of modernism. More than that, he’s “very accessible, very inventive, very playful. … Yet I think people don’t know the sculptures as well, and the relationship of the painting to the sculptures, and the work that he did later into his career. So this will show more of Miró than we’ve had a chance to see in other exhibitions that have been presented in the U.S.”
She doesn’t believe there’s been any major Miró exhibition on the West Coast in a very long time. “It seemed like an exciting opportunity, and a great collaboration with one of the greatest museums of modern and contemporary art in Europe.”
SAM’s own collection of such art will grow as well: The gifts that were promised to SAM by local collectors during its 75th anniversary in 2007 will increase the museum’s permanent holdings of post-1945 European and American art, she said.
“People are going to be just astonished,” Rorschach says. “That’s going to be one of our strongest collections and one of the most significant collections in the country of that material.”
Still, modern and contemporary art, Rorschach stresses, won’t be the only emphasis at SAM. A new surge in local collecting of European Old Masters, she says, also has great potential benefit for the museum. People will get glimpses of it in “European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle,” which opens Feb. 14.
One concern she has is the downtown museum’s layout. Because it extends through two buildings constructed 16 years apart (1991 and 2007), it wasn’t conceived as a cohesive whole. For anyone wanting to follow the museum’s collections chronologically from the ancient world to the 21st century, Rorschach acknowledges, it’s not obvious where to start.
She’s also curious about what tips SAM, as a nonprofit, can pick up from some of our local corporate giants: “Are there things we can learn from Starbucks? Are there things we can learn from Costco? Are there things we can learn from Microsoft about our markets and how we target our potential customers?”
Overall, she’s upbeat.
“I want,” Rorschach declares, “to develop the reputation where everybody in town says, ‘I don’t know what that show’s about that they’re doing it at the Seattle Art Museum. But I don’t care. If it’s at SAM, I know it’s going to be great.’”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com