A MUSEUM WITHOUT WALLS: THE LEGACY OF MIMI GATES
She has been called “an academic with the soul of a crowd-pleasing performance artist.” Embracing art and audience, Mimi Gates has redefined the Seattle Art Museum as a public enterprise without economic, social, cultural or generational barriers. Of all the remarkable things that Mimi has built in her fifteen years as the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director—extensive global art collections, a diverse exhibition program, a conservation studio and a waterfront sculpture park—surely one of her most monumental achievements is the sense of community ownership of SAM that she has cultivated out of her own passionate belief that art is for everyone.
Young people: Growing Up With Art
Mimi believes art has something vital to offer everyone. When she thinks about the audience for the museum, she’s ambitious and leaves nobody out.
Mimi came to the Seattle Art Museum from the Yale University Art Gallery, where she had been the director for seven years. Intent that Yale’s art gallery should reflect more than the college’s liberal arts programs, that it could be “a window on the community,” Mimi had launched an unprecedented collaboration with the New Haven public schools. Based on her experiences at Yale, Mimi could see that turning the Seattle Art Museum outward was an important move.
Within a year of her arrival in Seattle in 1994, Mimi and the museum’s curatorial and education teams had drafted a multi-pronged program to build new relationships between schools and the museum. This four-year initiative, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, would become the basis for the programs and audience development efforts that define SAM today. “Growing Up with Art” created elementary and middle school curricula that incorporated art into all aspects of students’ learning experiences. The museum invited middle school students to organize two exhibitions of works from the permanent collection, thus fostering their curiosity and eliciting their unique perspective on the world. In their small way, such projects inaugurated efforts to use SAM’s collections cross-culturally, and they also paved the way for community participation in exhibition planning.
To further assist teachers, “Growing Up with Art” provided for the establishment of a teacher resource center, which opened in January 1997 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Today the Wyckoff Teacher Resource Center is an essential public resource, with more than 4,000 resources available for free loan to educators.
Culturally Diverse Audiences: Deepening the Dialogue
The arts can be a positive force in our community and can give you a global perspective—help you understand who you are and worlds outside of yourself.
The outreach that had begun with “Growing Up with Art” eventually grew into conversations with the larger community, a “deeper dialogue,” as Mimi would describe it, than the earlier programs with schoolteachers, young people and their families. The museum had changed significantly—SAM was now two distinct museums in two very different settings. How did people view the Seattle Art Museum?
In 2000 SAM proudly announced it was the recipient of a $1.2 million award from the Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fund. The four-year grant was designed to find ways to diversify SAM’s audiences and deepen their involvement in the daily life of the museum. More than changing the public perception of the museum, “Deepening the Dialogue: Art and Audience,” as the Wallace grant initiative was known, ultimately changed SAM’s sense of itself.
Following conversations with community groups, curators placed new emphasis on the global character of the collections and extended that to the exhibition program as well. Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back (2002) brought the spirit of contemporary Africa to America. S’abadeb—The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists (2008) offered a glimpse into the daily and ceremonial lives of the Salish First Peoples of Washington State and British Columbia. Additionally, the museum began addressing timely issues of society and culture, offering such programs as a regular forum on race.
Mimi, along with the staff and board, was now able to articulate the vision for the museum in simple, straightforward language: SAM Connects Art to Life. This clear vision statement and the community engagement that had inspired it would serve the museum well as the institution embarked on the next big idea: capital projects that transformed not only the museum but the city of Seattle as well.
I AM SAM
The perception of the Seattle Art Museum has changed. . . . Once insular, the museum has worked hard to become accessible and engaged in the whole community through extensive outreach programs and educational initiatives. Today, anyone can carve out an experience at SAM.
trustee and former head of ArtsFund, quoted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
January 2, 2007
The extraordinary success of the museum’s capital campaign for the building of the Olympic Sculpture Park, the expansion of the downtown museum, and the renovation of the 1933 landmark Seattle Asian Art Museum is evidence of how grounded the museum now is in the community. “I AM SAM” became the rallying cry of supporters, who together gave over 10,000 gifts of all sizes to the campaign, declaring their feelings of ownership in the museum.
The capital projects themselves evolved out of the lessons learned from years of audience research, which had revealed the physical and perceptual barriers that the downtown building presented to visitors; identified the needs of a growing audience as well as those of a growing collection; and suggested the advantages for all if the museum could be more connected to the street life of the city.
“Everybody builds,” Mimi’s friend John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, once noted of his museum director colleagues. “Mimi builds differently.” His words speak to Mimi’s extraordinary vision and leadership, but they also refer to her insight that a city art museum is necessarily a partnership—among museum professionals and trustees, civic leaders, residents and businesses.
Mimi took the vision of a museum sculpture park and turned it into a community-wide quest to create a significant public space. While desiring an outdoor location for the display of monumental sculpture, she also recognized what such a space could mean for Seattle. Working in partnership with the Trust for Public Land and with city and county government, Mimi and the museum’s trustees achieved the ideal of a museum without walls. “Porous, free, open, embracing the energy of a city, a glorious place to be” is how Mimi enthusiastically describes the sculpture park, noting particularly its free admission, made possible by Jon and Mary Shirley’s donation of an endowment.
Consistent with Mimi’s propensity for looking outward, the park designed by Weiss/Manfredi is no place for escape from urban realities. It embraces all that is uncommon about this dynamic city—the colorful waterfront; views from the Olympic Mountains to the Space Needle, including an active railroad and a four-lane thoroughfare; and startling, challenging works of contemporary art that compel interaction on the part of the viewer. Since its opening in January 2007, the park has received nineteen national and international awards for its architecture, design, beach restoration and sustainability.
Likewise, expanding the downtown Seattle Art Museum was never about simply increasing the square footage. It was a part of Mimi’s vision of how SAM could contribute to the vitality of downtown Seattle. Designed by Brad Cloepfil of Portland’s Allied Works Architecture, the new structure has been aptly described by Mimi as a place where “the inside flows out and the outside flows in,” with spaces that are open and airy, with lots of natural light and visual connections to the city outside. Surrounding landmarks, from the Lusty Lady peep show to the historic Pike Place Market and Elliott Bay, are visible from inside the museum. The building encourages people to look upward, into the future, to envision it as a museum that will one day grow to twelve stories.
But a sense of openness and expansiveness is truly achieved only when a museum is welcoming to everyone. Mimi was intent that a major feature of the new SAM would be its admission-free spaces, like the Brotman Forum, where visitors look up to see the cars made airborne by artist Cai Guo-Qiang, an acquisition that Mimi championed. Certainly the building is a state-of-the-art facility for the presentation and care of art collections, but Mimi also insisted that it serve people well—by educating them, inspiring them, partnering with them. The new SAM Downtown represents the bonds of community that Mimi knew would be the museum’s strength in our time and in years to come.
A Museum for Scholars
Our leader, Mimi Neill, president of the board of the Yale–China Association and curator of Oriental art at the Yale University Art Gallery, is a skilled China hand, and she did a lot to make that mysterious country comprehensible to us.
With a doctorate in the history of Chinese art from Yale and opportunities to both teach and lead a curatorial department there, Mimi wanted to take Chinese studies out of the college classroom and into the real world. Over the course of her academic and museum careers, Mimi has led Americans on dozens of trips to China. The comment by one traveler on her 1984 trip that she “did a lot to make that mysterious country comprehensible to us” is equally applicable to Mimi’s work at SAM.
Part of what attracted Mimi to SAM was the quality of the Asian art collections and Seattle’s connections with cultures of the Pacific Rim. When Mimi arrived in the spring of 1994, the museum’s original Volunteer Park building was about to reopen as the Seattle Asian Art Museum. It had been planned as a showcase for SAM’s greatest Asian art masterpieces. “We were going to open the doors, and that was to be it for a while,” said Michael Knight, then SAM’s Foster Foundation Associate Curator for Asian Art. Instead, Mimi re-envisioned what the museum could be.
She changed the way art was presented from a static approach to a dynamic one, announcing that the new Seattle Asian Art Museum would become a vital center for the study and appreciation of Asian cultures. Mimi encouraged the curators to develop a series of small, regularly changing exhibitions focusing on different parts of the Asian collections, with new emphasis on pan-Asian ideas and exchanges between East and West. She also positioned SAM as a place of scholarship, and soon she was co-teaching a University of Washington course on the history of porcelain; that class provided the impetus for the subsequent exhibition and publication Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe (2000).
Mimi has championed exhibitions and encouraged acquisitions of modern Asian art as well. Modern Masters of Kyoto (1999–2000), one of the first Asian shows organized by SAM under her direction, traveled to Kyoto. Japan Envisions the West: 16th–19th Century Japanese Art from Kobe City Museum helped inaugurate the expanded exhibition program at the new SAM Downtown in 2007.
For Mimi, studying the history of art is not simply about examining someone else’s past and culture; it’s about teaching us more about ourselves. “The arts can help you learn who you are in the world,” she is fond of saying.
Mimi has a remarkable ability to move smoothly from one culture into another. In November 2004 the museum welcomed King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía of Spain for a special viewing of Spain in the Age of Exploration 1492–1819. Not long after, Mimi spent all night at a memorial Tlingit potlatch in remote Angoon, Alaska, where she was given the honorary Tlingit name Yakdooshi, which means “Killerwhale singing alongside the boat.”
Always committed to cultural stewardship, Mimi worked for the establishment of an art conservation department at SAM. The creation of the Neukom Conservation Studio, which involved remodeling suitable space, purchasing equipment and hiring professional staff, was completed in 2003.
New exhibitions and publications have naturally resulted. Renaissance Art in Focus: Neri di Bicci and Devotional Painting in Italy (2004), for example, followed the conservation at SAM of a Neri di Bicci altarpiece from Seattle’s St. James Cathedral. Not only did the exhibition document the first major conservation treatment in the new studio, it explicated the finer points of both Renaissance painting and modern conservation techniques for scholars and laypeople alike.
Beyond Seattle to the World
Art questions what we think we know.
Founding director Richard E. Fuller would have said that SAM brought representative examples of the world’s art to Seattle. Asked her opinion, Mimi would undoubtedly take the opposite view. She has been intent on taking SAM to the world.
One of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by SAM reflects Mimi’s commitment to expanding the museum’s audience and reputation internationally. The monumental exhibition Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan (2001), five years in the making, could not have happened without Mimi’s connections in the People’s Republic of China and her well-honed skills at international diplomacy and fundraising. The archeological discoveries at a thirteenth-century site in Sichuan had brought to light breathtaking objects that essentially rewrote Chinese art history. As a China scholar, Mimi understood how important this show would be; she knew the cache of works well, and she appreciated how the art would engage the public imagination.
The scholarship behind Treasures from a Lost Civilization was pathbreaking. The objects were captivating. The project represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure close ties with China and for people outside China to be introduced to a culture that was still shrouded in mystery. This was Mimi’s kind of show. With Treasures from a Lost Civilization—which traveled to the Kimbell Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Royal Ontario Museum—SAM secured a place in the top tier of museums and garnered an international reputation for exhibitions and scholarship of the highest caliber.
Mimi recognized that Seattle’s art museum enjoyed a privileged position at the center of the world of computer technology, and the museum forged collaborations with leaders in the field to enhance exhibitions in meaningful ways. For example, the 1997 exhibition Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci’s Legacy of Art and Science employed a new software tool to closely examine Leonardo’s scientific notebook. The “Codescope” gave visitors several ways to access the Codex sheets digitally, including instantly transcribing any given section of Leonardo’s reversed handwriting into English.
Mimi’s ideal is a museum without walls, certainly, but her commitment to educating through art and inspiring creativity emanates from her passion for the singular eloquent object. Exhibitions and technology help people sense the resonance of those works, but it is the objects themselves that express our identity and values. How different Mimi’s sense of mission is from that of Dr. Fuller, who, thinking pragmatically about what was realistic for a young museum in the still-remote Pacific Northwest, focused the museum’s acquisition efforts primarily on Asian art—his personal passion—and regional art.
In contrast, Mimi has enthusiastically embraced the curators’ forays into new areas of collecting and extending the boundaries of SAM’s established collections. Australian Aboriginal and Oceanic arts have permanent gallery space, as does a dynamic African masquerade. Northwest Coast Native arts now include contemporary works. SAM has its first department of historical American art. And in the area of contemporary art, so long dominated by painters and sculptors in New York, SAM now surveys the global art scene and collects in all media.
“What evidence do we have of the museum’s progress and its increased benefit to our community—regionally, nationally and internationally?” Mimi asked rhetorically in SAM’s 2000 annual report. Attendance and membership figures had reached record heights, she noted. But these were surely just a reflection of the museum’s new broad appeal. At a time when Seattle was changing rapidly and establishing itself as a city of the world, Seattle’s art museum, with Mimi Gates at the helm, became a museum of and for the world.
In recognition of her visionary leadership, SAM’s Board of Trustees has announced that Mimi will become Director Emerita upon her retirement.
Derrick Cartwright has been selected as SAM’s next Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director. He will begin his tenure in the fall of 2009.