Constance Rice first fell in love with museums when she’d visit The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in junior high school. She started visiting MoMA because it was near a library she studied at, and she liked the hot chocolate at the cafe on the first floor. It quickly became a place of comfort where she could sit and reflect.
Rice says going to the museum opened her mind to the possibilities of life outside of her neighborhood in Brooklyn, which she says was one of the crime centers of New York at the time. Her father only had a sixth-grade education, but she now has a Ph.D. and a record of leadership in many of Seattle’s most prominent organizations.
Rice became the new chair of the Seattle Art Museum’s board of trustees on Sept. 21. The museum believes she is the first Black woman to chair a board of a major art museum, besides ethnic art museums, in the U.S., though it doesn’t have definitive data on that. (Denise Gardner, a Black woman, was recently named the board chair of The Art Institute of Chicago but doesn’t take the role until November.) The American Alliance of Museums doesn’t keep a count of Black woman museum board chairs, but in 2017, only 3% of museum board chairs in the country were Black, and 46% of museum boards were 100% white.
“We are thrilled to have Constance as our new board chair because she is a total powerhouse in education, but also as an advocate for underserved communities and a champion of equity,” says Amada Cruz, SAM’s director and CEO.
Rice has served on the University of Washington’s board of regents since 2013. She was the founding executive director of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation USA. She established health and nutrition programs at seven elementary schools and is married to Norm Rice, who served two terms as Seattle’s mayor in the 1990s. And she’s on the oversight committee for the City of Seattle’s Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise Levy, a $619 million education fund.
Rice has served on the SAM board since 1995, where she’s worked on the equity task force and the executive, governance, education and community engagement committees. As board chair, Rice will oversee the museum’s leadership and budget and represent the museum “as an ambassador of its mission to connect art to life,” according to a news release. She replaces Stewart Landefeld as chair.
Rice says community engagement and equity are two of her priorities as board chair.
She says she wants to “keep doors wide open” in the museum to communities that might not see the museum as a place they belong, in the way she felt comfortable roaming the halls of MoMA when she was younger.
“For me, every citizen of Seattle owns the art museum,” Rice says. “I want them, when they walk in, to feel like I felt years ago as a kid: welcome.”
Rice hopes to do that partially by making the art hanging on the walls of the museum reflective of Seattle’s residents. Cruz says the museum is changing its curatorial strategy to acquire more works by artists of color.
Rice also says she wants to work on more projects like Olympic Sculpture Park that bring art out of the museum and into the community.
Rice is the most recent addition to a roster of women of color who hold powerful positions at SAM. Cruz is Cuban American and says she doesn’t know any other Latina directors of major art museums. She says her chief financial officer, chief marketing officer, the diversity, equity and inclusion director and the museum’s lawyer are all women of color.
Cruz says this is rare in the museum world, and progress is often slow in the “big bureaucratic monsters” that are large museums. But the Black Lives Matter movement brought focus to the lack of diversity in museums, and slowly, change is happening.
Rice and Cruz both believe the museum’s paid Emerging Arts Leader Internship will help more people of color enter the museum world. Rice says the internship is open to everybody, but she’s going to work hard to get students of color to apply.
Debbie Bird, the chair of the board for the Northwest African American Museum, says this type of advocacy is a tenet of Rice’s work. Bird has known Rice since the late 1980s and worked on Norm Rice’s campaign.
“Constance is truly an advocate to bring more people of color into our school systems, into the arts and into politics,” Bird says. “She’s going to work with the SAM board to open doors for those that may not have thought that they could be a part of SAM.”