Ask Rosanna Sharpe what has prepared her for her new job as executive director of Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), and she gives a straightforward answer: “Life has prepared me.”
Certainly, she has all the professional experience that you would expect of someone taking up a key position in the city’s cultural infrastructure: She has a museum master of fine arts from Syracuse University’s department of African American Studies, and she has worked at Tacoma Art Museum, as director of curatorial affairs at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, and as manager of the Traveling Exhibition Program and Collections at EMP.
But Sharpe brings rather more than professional experience to the job. She brings wisdom from her own experiences growing up multiracial. She was born in the Pacific Northwest and, with a father in the service, she spent much of her early life in and around Fort Lewis and Spanaway. Her mother comes from a small town in the Midlands of England and she spent time there as well. She is the first member of her family to have attended college.
“I’ve lived in the ’hood and I’ve lived in the Hamptons,” she jokes, referring to the tony South Fork of Long Island in New York, where she studied for her bachelor of fine arts degree at Long Island University. Though she insists it will be vital that she “stay true to what I believe in,” she feels that this breadth of experience, “this wide-open aperture” as she puts it, will be vital to her success.
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Clearly the NAAM board agrees with her. Before she was named to the post on Oct. 1, she had been doing it in an interim capacity for the previous eight months.
Sharpe is convinced that NAAM is fundamentally different in spirit from the other places that she has worked.
“Here we are based in storytelling and narrative,” she says. “It’s the story of why African Americans came to this region and the challenges — and the successes — that they faced along the way.” She recognizes that this foundation in community gives the museum the potential to become a principal cultural destination both for residents and for visitors.
“You can’t talk about the American experience without talking about the black experience,” she says, “so we offer people the chance to learn about themselves and to learn about others in the process.”
This theme is echoed by Barbara Earl Thomas, the museum’s former executive director (appointed in 2008), who now continues as Sharpe’s deputy. “NAAM completes the cultural landscape,” she says. “It’s not something that’s been added on; it’s something that’s essential.”
Anyone who has driven out of Seattle on I-90 knows NAAM. It is housed in the imposing Colman School building that stands just above the freeway as it disappears into the Mount Baker Tunnel.
Given that the building is so familiar, it is a little ironic that Sharpe sees a key element of her role as raising the museum’s profile.
“There’s nothing like NAAM from here to San Francisco,” she says, “and we pride ourselves on making this a welcoming place. Our aim is to have people arrive curious and leave enriched.”
Five years after it opened, the museum is at a key moment in its development. Many Seattleites remember the Colman School occupation and the hotly debated disagreements about the museum’s focus, but Earl Thomas has been with the project from the beginning, and she puts it like this: “The museum’s not just a dream anymore. It’s there. But now there’s a job to do. Let’s just do it!”
It is a job that Sharpe is eager to get on with. She says she was drawn to NAAM “like metal to a magnet.” Meanwhile, she has a message for potential museum visitors: “Don’t wait for Black History Month. We’re open five days a week. Come on down!”
Robert Ayers: firstname.lastname@example.org