With an eye on evolving into the future, the Seattle Art Museum has announced José Carlos Diaz, a specialist in contemporary art, as its new deputy director for art following an international search. Diaz, who will assume his position on a yet-unannounced date in July, succeeds Chiyo Ishikawa. Ishikawa retired in 2020 following 30 years at the museum.

As deputy director, Diaz will oversee the museum’s artistic program, leading eight curators and other staff in exhibitions, collections, publications and libraries across the downtown Seattle Art Museum, the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park and the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Amada Cruz, SAM’s director and CEO, said in a statement that Diaz “is a visionary scholar and leader who is brimming with exciting ideas about our artistic program, including deepening our connections with local artists and communities.”

Born in Miami, Diaz grew up outside of Sacramento, California, in an artistic family. His mother is a photographer and his brother is an indie rock musician. Diaz took the visual arts route, studying art history, criticism and conservation while an undergraduate at San Francisco State University, before receiving his master’s degree in cultural history from the University of Liverpool. After undergrad, he wasn’t sure where his path might lead, but he knew he wanted to work in the arts.

“One of the challenges with studying art history is that no one tells you what to do with an art history degree,” Diaz said, “whether you’ll work as a teacher or in an auction house or galleries or as an artist.”

His background is perhaps appropriately varied. He was a curatorial intern at the Rubell Museum in Miami before launching a project called Worm-Hole Laboratory, allowing his own apartment to serve as an incubator space for Miami artists to exhibit their work. After serving in various roles at Tate Liverpool and as curator of exhibitions at The Bass in Miami Beach, Diaz made his way to his most recent post as chief curator at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.


He wound up gravitating toward curation due to a desire to work with artists to create exhibitions and shows by which anyone of any age can be enchanted. As Diaz noted, museums across the country are challenged by relevancy, battling perceptions that they’re either archaic or not for everyone. It’s important to remember that museums, he said, are “living, breathing institutions that have to evolve.”

“SAM is an anchor arts institution for the city of Seattle,” Diaz said. “It’s an institution that local people should be visiting frequently.”

Evolving, Diaz noted, includes changes through equity, diversity and inclusion efforts like rethinking hiring practices and diversifying staff, but it also means rethinking collections and exhibitions and listening more deeply to what the community wants. This next stage for SAM will rely on Diaz’s specialties in contemporary art, multidisciplinary programming, public art and working with SAM’s curators to rethink the institution’s collection.

“I’m a total optimist,” Diaz said. “I believe museums are places where people can find inspiration. I want SAM to inspire the next generation of curators and artists and patrons. This is something that museum curators are discussing — we’ve been discussing this for years, but it’s more urgent now.”

Having worked at Tate Liverpool, one of four Tate art galleries, and The Andy Warhol Museum, one of four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Diaz is excitedly stepping into the opportunity to oversee SAM’s artistic program and start to craft a new vision and narrative around its three locations.

“I have the opportunity to really think about ways that these three sites can collaborate,” said Diaz. “There’s very few cities in the U.S. that have this sort of structure of several sites, which is really exciting for me. I guess I’m being a little greedy because it has something for everyone, but it certainly has everything for me.”