Mimi Gates has announced she is stepping down next year from the helm of one of the city's premier arts institutions.

Share story

Mimi Gardner Neil took over as director of Seattle Art Museum in 1994, presiding over an ambitious downtown expansion, the creation of the Olympic Sculpture Park and the resolution of a landmark legal battle over a Nazi-pillaged painting — and along the way, changing her name to Mimi Gates, after marrying Bill Gates Sr., father of the Microsoft founder, in 1996.

Now, Mimi Gates has announced she is stepping down next year from the helm of one of the city’s premier arts institutions.

“I love the museum and always will. But it’s healthy for me and the museum to have new chapters,” said Gates, 65.

Gates’ stint at SAM has brought the most dramatic changes in the institution’s history. To open the expansion and the sculpture park last year, the museum raised some $200 million, the largest arts-capital campaign this city has seen.

SAM also recently announced 1,000 promised gifts of art valued at $1 billion, a landmark in museum philanthropy. Under Gates’ watch, the museum also established a new art-conservation department.

Now operating in three venues — downtown, the sculpture park and the Seattle Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park — SAM has seen its annual budget grow to a hefty $27 million. Sustainability is a major challenge, Gates said. “We have planned deficits and have whittled them down. It’s challenging because of the economy.”

According to a museum spokeswoman, this year’s deficit of $2.4 million will be covered by funds from the capital campaign.

A good fit

When she started at SAM, Gates told The Seattle Times she had not been looking for a new job. She was working in New Haven, Conn., as director of the art gallery at Yale University, where she had earned her Ph.D. “But when Seattle [Art Museum] asked me, I had an intuitive sense: I felt it was a good fit.”

As a specialist in Asian art, Gates seemed especially well suited to SAM, with its founding collection of Asian art. She’s also a fan of outdoor activities, fond of fishing, kayaking and cross-country skiing.

Fourteen years later, Gates doesn’t hesitate when asked her proudest achievement at SAM.

“Certainly the Olympic Sculpture Park is a highlight. That surpassed all expectations and my dream of having art out in the community, open and free to everybody.”

Jay Xu, former SAM curator of Chinese art, says his regard for Gates is unqualified. Xu left SAM to work at the Art Institute of Chicago and recently was hired as director of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, where he will start June 16.

“The time I had at Seattle Art Museum was the best in my career so far,” Xu said by phone from Chicago. “I cannot be grateful enough to Mimi, who really helped launch my career in the United States. … She cares very much about the art.”

Museum chair Jon Shirley gives Gates credit for putting SAM on the map: “She has made [SAM] well known internationally — at the Louvre, the Prado, in China and Japan … .”

Her drive and willingness to travel helped SAM attract exhibitions from major museums, including the recent “Gates of Paradise” and “Roman Art from the Louvre,” he said.

Gates’ work ethic has at times come under fire. Not long after she arrived at the museum, amid a flurry of departures from the staff, complaints floated about Gates’ four-day workweek, her frequent travel and the distractions of her romance with Bill Gates Sr. News stories at the time cited critics who questioned whether she was devoted enough to running the museum.

Shirley says those criticisms were based on misunderstandings.

“She travels a great deal and whenever she goes anywhere, even if it’s not a museum trip, she is busy promoting this museum,” Shirley said. “When she is here, every event in town where she can promote us, she is there.”

Gates also took some heat in the beginning over the way SAM handled the return of a 1928 Matisse “Odalisque,” which had been given to the museum by collector Prentice Bloedel and was later identified as having been looted by the Nazis.

SAM at first refused to return the painting, waiting until full information on its provenance could be uncovered. Eventually, SAM did return the painting to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, but went on to sue the Knoedler Gallery in New York, which had sold the painting to Bloedel.

After extended legal wrangling, SAM received a cash settlement from Knoedler for an undisclosed amount, a happy ending for the museum.

Positioned for future

SAM’s board will honor Gates with the title director emeritus, the first in the museum’s history.

She sees her retirement in July 2009 as the start of another phase in her career. Gates says she will continue to support her husband’s work for the Gates Foundation but draws a line at her own involvement.

“That’s separate from what I do,” she said. “I have a passion for Asian arts and culture and will certainly shape a new direction for myself in a positive way.”

SAM trustees are organizing a search for her successor. Shirley acknowledged that the market for museum directors is tight right now, with more than 20 museums nationwide searching, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Still, he says SAM has got a lot going for it.

“We have some advantages. We’re a museum that’s incredibly well positioned for future growth. We have three locations and are in a fantastically great city to live in. … I think we will get some excellent candidates.”

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com