After five and a half years at the helm of Seattle’s Frye Art Museum, director and CEO Joseph Rosa has announced plans to step down on March 31, the conclusion of his current contract. Rosa, who previously worked as the director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, joined the Frye as its sixth director in 2016, succeeding Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker.
“Being the director/CEO of the Frye has meant the world to me,” said Rosa, who added that he and his family intend to stay in Seattle, which he called their “forever city.”
But as his contract drew near its end, he reflected on a career that has taken him through leadership roles in curatorial departments at the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and he saw that it was time for him to make room for other voices.
“I’ve seen a lot,” Rosa said. “I became a director because I wanted to support emerging talents as curators and artists. Now I think it’s time for more curators to become directors, so I want to move over for an emerging talent within our field to take a healthy museum and just be the best they can be with one of the best museums in the country.”
As he reflected on his tenure at the Frye, Rosa pointed to the collaborative nature of working with his colleagues as they rethought the museum’s relevancy to its community by showcasing local and global artists who raise questions about the world through their art.
“Art is not always about beauty,” Rosa said. “It’s about taking issues of cultural condition and putting it in front of people.”
Additionally, he pointed to the museum’s work on diversity, equity and inclusion, saying that the museum now has a more holistic sensibility that opens the door for a bright future for the Frye. He expressed pride in the partnership that brought “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem” to the city, as well as the upcoming Christina Quarles exhibit, which is the largest presentation of the Los Angeles-based artist’s work to date.
During Rosa’s five-year tenure, he named new department heads in finance, curatorial, development and education and saw the museum increase its net assets by close to 30%, according to the Frye. Rosa noted that despite how problematic the pandemic has been for many arts institutions, he saw the Frye as lucky since, as a free museum, it did not have to factor in any loss of admission revenue.
The Frye did lay off 21 part-time/on-call employees in April 2020, but later added back 15 part-time/on-call staffers. And despite reporting a dip in revenue from $4.8 million in 2019 to $4.4 million in 2020, the Frye considers itself on solid financial footing as it prepares to search for Rosa’s successor.
Though Rosa said stepping away from the museum doesn’t constitue a retirement step for him, he does envision a period of downtime to spend with his wife of over 30 years and his two sons. And he joked about how he would enjoy being able to go skiing on a Wednesday.
The museum’s board of trustees says it will launch an international search for Rosa’s replacement, with Chief Financial Officer Thomas Mitchell and chief curator Amanda Donnan serving as co-directors in the interim.
“We were fortunate to have benefited from Joe’s financial acumen, strength of vision, and deep roots in the field,” Jennifer Potter, president of the Frye’s board, said in a statement. “His emphasis on caring for the Frye community — staff, volunteers, artists, and partners — was extremely evident throughout the past two years of the global pandemic, and he leaves the institution in a strong position to thrive in the years to come.”