Theresa Papanikolas, who starts in her new role in January, is only SAM’s second curator of American art.
Theresa Papanikolas, the lively and enthusiastic new Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), knows all about the challenges of putting together memorable and original exhibitions far from traditional art centers.
You think Seattle is on the art-world periphery? Her job since 2008 has been deputy director and curator of American and European art at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA), a good 2,600 miles farther west than here, and even less typically associated with the world of fine art.
But it’s not as if Papanikolas, who officially starts in January, has flown completely under the art establishment radar. “Maui, Wowee,” gushed The New York Times in its review of her show “Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai’i,” currently on view at the New York Botanical Garden, in a presentation that includes both O’Keeffe’s exotic floral paintings and the actual flowers in the pictures.
O’Keeffe has been a focus for Papanikolas from her time as an art-history student studying early American modernists; more recently, as HoMA curator, she presented a show of the Hawaiian pictures of photographer Ansel Adams and O’Keeffe. By fortunate coincidence, SAM has just acquired a major O’Keeffe abstraction, “Music—Pink and Blue No. 1,” and Papanikolas is ready to make it a department feature.
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Papanikolas is only SAM’s second curator of American art, a field that itself has only recently achieved prominence and prestige. Her predecessor and founder of the department, Patricia Junker, who retired in the spring, oversaw the establishment of SAM’s American art galleries, as well as mounting ambitious loan shows, like the recent Wyeth exhibition. Papanikolas sees her role in succeeding Junker as staying the course. “Continuity is really important in the curatorial realm,” Papanikolas said. “Disruption is the sort of thing that presidents do.”
Continuity in this case means continuing the departmental focus on historical American art, the period from colonial times through World War II, and bringing in thematic temporary exhibitions to supplement the modest-sized permanent collection. “As a smaller museum you need to be creative” she said, “to motivate larger institutions to loan major work.”
She offered as an example a show she mounted in Hawaii on abstract expressionism, in which she included examples by lesser-known local painters, many of Asian ancestry, and explored how Eastern thought influenced their work. As a result, larger museums were willing to loan HoMA the likes of Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning, seeing the opportunity to put their work in a newer context, compared to a conventional survey show.
“I like using pictures to help tell stories, stories that can help connect older work to current concerns like the environment or identity,” she said. “I also like work that highlights a sense of place.”
Famed Eastside collector and influential SAM board member Barney Ebsworth was also a board member of the Honolulu Museum of Art, and before his death in April, he spoke highly of Papanikolas as a curator, according to SAM trustee and key American Art Department patron Tom Barwick.
“We did a panel together on Georgia O’Keeffe, with whom Barney was very close,” Papanikolas says. “He had great stories.” The Ebsworth connection is ironic, given that his classic Edward Hopper painting “Chop Suey,” which most local observers assumed was being gifted to SAM, is instead going up for auction, with pre-auction estimates in the $70 million range.
Like “Chop Suey,” the final status of many other locally owned masterworks by historically significant artists is still uncertain. An important, and decidedly less public, part of Papanikolas’s new job is to help convince local collectors with pieces by artists like Thomas Eakins or John Singer Sargent that SAM is the best final repository for their artworks.
Working with potential art donors is a complicated mating dance even in the best of times. In wealthy but preoccupied Seattle, where titans of the tech industry like Jeff Bezos have thus far demonstrated little interest in helping build the collection of their local art museum, Papanikolas faces a particular challenge in expanding what Barwick says will be — someday — “one of the county’s leading American art collections.”
The first Gilded Age saw donors like the Mellons and the Morgans enrich entire museums with their generosity. Here in the midst of Gilded Age 2.0, the ability of smaller, newer institutions like SAM to achieve similar heft is still very much an open question. Coming from a museum — HoMA — half the size of SAM, Papanikolas clearly welcomes the opportunity.