Seattle Art Museum named Kimerly Rorschach as its new director on Monday. Rorschach is currently director of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in North Carolina.

Share story

Kimerly Rorschach, founding director of the Nasher Museum at Duke University, will become the Seattle Art Museum’s new director this fall. But she won’t come in as a stranger to the Pacific Northwest.

Rorschach, whose appointment was announced Monday, revealed she has a more local connection than one might guess.

True, she grew up in Texas, holds a master’s and Ph.D. from Yale, was director of the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, and held positions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.

But her husband, she says, is from Eugene, Ore., and they visit the Pacific Northwest every summer. That’s given her a chance to follow events at SAM over the years — from the opening of the downtown museum and its later expansion to the transformation of SAM’s longtime Volunteer Park quarters into the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the building of Olympic Sculpture Park.

She has been impressed, she says, by “the way the museum has really come on the map, nationally and internationally.” She’s even more powerfully drawn by the potential of SAM in “this great, forward-thinking city that’s ever-changing, ever-developing.”

So while she won’t be building a museum from the ground up, as she did at the Nasher, she does feel confident that she can contribute to SAM’s future “in a very exciting way.”

Rorschach, 56, fills the vacancy left by Derrick Cartwright, who resigned in May 2011. She made her name building the Nasher literally from scratch. The museum, formerly known as Duke University Museum of Art, was housed in a science building on the Duke campus and served primarily as a teaching facility; it now resides in a 66,000-square-foot building and houses a collection of contemporary art as well as traveling exhibitions.

Under her purview, Nasher attendance grew from 10,000 to more than 130,000 visitors per year and the museum gained national corporate sponsorship. The search for a new director for SAM has been protracted, leaving the museum leaderless for more than a year. SAM’s board, one imagines, must be relieved to have finally found its director.

“It’s thrilling to have somebody in place,” museum board President Charlie Wright concedes. “But I would say that it’s super-thrilling to have Kim.”

Rorschach’s collaborations at the Nasher were key to the appeal she held for SAM’s board. One recent Nasher exhibit was “The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914-1918,” developed in tandem with London’s Tate Britain (the former Tate Gallery) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Another, developed with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was “El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III,” which was named in 2008 by The Wall Street Journal as one of the top 10 art exhibits of the year.

“The Seattle Art Museum,” Wright notes, “has done great work in forming strategic partnerships with institutions nationally and internationally, and we’re proud of the exhibitions that have resulted from that. It did not escape our notice that Kim has also done some of that.”

Rorschach was elected president of the Association of Art Museum Directors in May — surely another coup for SAM. But it’s her connection to our part of the country through her husband and his family that’s most heartening.

“It seems to me,” Rorschach says with a smile, “that people from the Pacific Northwest just pine for it when they’re taken out of that environment. So he’s very excited to be returning. … It’s a bit of homecoming for both of us.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com.

Weekend Plus editor Melissa Davis contributed to this story.