Women have not only shattered the glass ceiling at the region’s art museums, they are influencing the shows that are mounted, the artists who are commissioned, and the people who are hired.

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A large, pop surrealist painting of an African-American girl hangs on the wall of artist Tariqa Waters’ Pioneer Square gallery, Martyr Sauce. The little girl glares down at the viewer, her eyes wide and furious.

No wonder she’s mad. She’s muzzled by a Hannibal Lecter-style face mask.

“I was feeling stifled in Atlanta,” Waters says of her painting.

Waters, 36, moved here from Atlanta in 2012 with her family. She describes the Atlanta art scene as one filled with macho hubris, where men would let her show her art, but they would say: “?‘I need you to stand here beside me and look pretty,’?” she says. “?‘It’s all about your looks or how you are. It’s not about the work that you’re producing.’?”

But in her new city, women rule the art world.

At the major visual-art museums in the Seattle region, all of the directors are women. At smaller museums, like the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience or the Northwest African American Museum, the directors are women. At the Seattle Art Museum, all seven curators are women. At many of the region’s art nonprofits, the top positions are also held by women.

Their influence can be seen in the shows that are mounted, the artists who are commissioned, and the people who are hired. The artists have become more diverse, in both gender and race, the canons have been broadened. At a time when glass ceilings may be shattered as high as the White House, and debate about playing the “woman card” abounds, staffs have started to look more like the real America.

Upon moving here, Waters met Sandra Jackson-Dumont, then the deputy director for Education and Public Programs at the Seattle Art Museum, currently the chairwoman of education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Through that connection, Waters became a teaching artist at SAM.

She also met Vivian Phillips, chair of the Seattle Arts Commission and head of marketing and communications for Seattle Theatre Group. Phillips recommended her to be co-curator for “Re:definition,” a yearlong series of art shows at the Paramount Theatre. Charged with focusing on African-American artists, Waters selected a woman, Aramis Hamer.

Waters, whose art is as eclectic and whimsical as her sense of style, works with self-portraiture to conjure questions about identity, race and gender in playful, thought-provoking ways.

Her diligence is starting to pay off: Her art has adorned covers of The Stranger and City Arts magazine; it has been shown in group shows at galleries around town. And on June 4, she opened a solo exhibition at the Northwest African American Museum, “100 Percent Kanekalon: The Untold Story of the Marginalized Matriarch.”


The scene in Seattle

In the tradition of the Wild West, Seattle does things its own way.

“This is a city where business does not follow traditional rules,” says Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, the outgoing director of the Frye Art Museum, pointing to the tech and aerospace industries. “There’s a much greater openness to the notion of startups, to the notion of innovation and experimentation.”

According to Christine Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, both Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis share Seattle’s distinction of having many female directors. But Seattle’s art ecosystem, younger and less calcified than its East Coast counterparts, is particularly fertile for female leadership.

The larger the museum, the less likely a woman is to run it. According to a 2014 study by the Association of Art Museum Directors, all four museums in the U.S. with budgets of more than $100 million (including the Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York) are run by men.

By contrast, women hold director positions at almost half the 165 museums with budgets less than $15 million. The Frye, Tacoma Art Museum and the Henry Art Gallery all fit that profile. But in museums of SAM’s size — it has a $24 million budget — just 24 percent of the 14 museums have female directors.

Mimi Gardner Gates, 73, became SAM’s first female director in 1994. She remembers the ’70s, when the world of directors was “primarily pinstriped suits,” but when she became the first female director of the Yale University Art Gallery in 1987, she says, “There was this sort of big uptick.”

“There was one woman admitted per decade through the 1970s, and then in the 1980s there were more than 40 women admitted,” she remembers.

Diversity beyond gender

Some see these strides as an important step toward diversity in gender representation. But the art world has a long way to go when it comes to racial diversity.

A 2015 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation study found that 84 percent of people holding leadership positions at art museums in the nation (including directors and curators) were white.

In Seattle, where there isn’t one person of color running the city’s biggest art institutions, the onus is on the women in charge to think more broadly about their audiences and the art hanging on the institution’s walls.

“The most important book that every museum director needs to have on their bedside table is the 2010 Census, because that is telling you exactly what the population looks like and where we’re going,” says Tacoma Art Museum Executive Director Stephanie Stebich, quoting the retired director of the Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman.

But artist Barbara Earl Thomas, the former executive director of the Northwest African American Museum, remembers a far less culturally aware time. In 1979, Thomas joined the Seattle Arts Commission (now called the Office of Arts & Culture), which oversees the “One Percent For Art” program. She’s been in the industry long enough to remember being shocked when a female artist was awarded $100,000, rather than the usual $10,000.

She worked to get more people of color — often relegated to “community art” or “folk art” — to apply for projects, but nothing really changed.

“They used to say, ‘Barbara, we need you to open some doors for us, so we can open the doors to the black community,’?” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Is that it, are we behind doors? I didn’t know that we were.’?”

Progress is being made, slowly but surely: The Office of Arts and Culture has years’ worth of data about the gender makeup of the Seattle Arts Commission and the city’s staff, but it only just started asking members to self-report racial diversity this year. And the Seattle Art Museum board is going to begin to self-identify this year.

But addressing diversity issues, cautions Sandra Jackson-Dumont, shouldn’t be about tokenism.

“If you’re interested in excellence and you don’t have diverse perspective, then you actually aren’t an excellent organization,” she says. “It’s kind of simple. It’s a business proposition on a lot of levels. It’s not a kumbaya thing.”

For an artist like Tariqa Waters, the door is at least ajar.

“The city, from the top down, here in Seattle, supports the arts,” Waters says. She feels, with its abundance of art walks and public art programs, Seattle is overflowing with opportunities for a diverse group of artists.

And the general public reaps the benefits.

In recent months, at SAM, museum-goers could take in gay African-American artist Kehinde Wiley’s large-scale homoerotic portraits of black men, or they could peruse Martha Rosler’s feminist anti-war art. They could attend one of the Remix parties, started by Jackson-Dumont in 2008 to bring in a younger, broader audience, and dance to music by hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction or popular KEXP DJ Riz Rollins.

They could catch exhibits at the Frye featuring the works of the collective The Black Constellation, the experimental hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, and Kahlil Joseph (of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” fame).

They could go to TAM, where 20 exhibitions by female artists have been mounted since 2005.

The city of Seattle has also stepped up its efforts. For a recent Portable Works collection purchase, Seattle Public Utilities specifically requested artists of color: 80 to 90 percent of the 66 contemporary artworks achieved that goal.

The city also commissioned Aramis Hamer to paint a mural, 130 feet long and 8 feet high, outside KEXP’s new offices at Seattle Center. The mural, meant to invoke the different eras of music, features an African-American woman painted a Princely-purple hue in the center.


Getting here

There was once a glass ceiling. At SAM, Bonnie Louise Pitman-Gelles was the acting director for a year in 1986 but never officially had the top job.

At the Henry, the late LaMar Harrington served as the associate director for several years but was never made director. She sued, claiming sex discrimination, and in 1972 settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. It would be another 36 years before Sylvia Wolf became the Henry’s first female director, in 2008.

At some Seattle-area museums, there’s been a precedent for female leaders. While Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker was the first female director at the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia, at the Frye she followed Ida Kay Greathouse and Midge Bowman. At both TAM and SAM, Stebich and Kimerly Rorschach followed other female directors.

Like many of the women in her peer group, Marge Levy, who was executive director of the Pilchuck Glass School for a decade, had many “firsts” in her career, among them: the first woman to get tenure at Purdue University in the art and design department and the first woman to be president of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.

“To see all these smart, capable, sophisticated women who are leading institutions,” she says, referring to the current crop of directors, “it’s fabulous.”

But as Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s deputy director for art, says, “Our dream for these kinds of things is that people will stop seeing it as unusual, but it just will be the way it is.”

Down in Pioneer Square, artist Tariqa Waters is opening a new 3,000-square-foot gallery space. She hopes it will be ready in July — just in time for the Seattle Art Fair. Success for younger women like Waters is encouraging for her mentor Vivian Phillips.

“We are seeing a growing cohort of women of color and people of color who are engaging in the arts and actually can see themselves in leadership positions. That had not been the case for a very long time,” Phillips says. “That’s what I want people to see in me,” she says. “I want them to see a possibility.”

Waters is the embodiment of a world where women own the galleries, women head the institutions, and where women can rule the world.

No woman card needed.