Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
Back to Reviews 96

The Seattle Art 
Museum, with 
Jonathan Borofsky's
Hammering Man.

Seattle Art 
Museum curator 
Trevor Fairbrother. 

Henry Art Gallery 
curator Sheryl Conkleton. 
Photo Raymond Gendreau.

The Henry Art Gallery, 
under construction. 
Photo John Stamets.

PICA executive 
director Kristy Edmunds.

seattle: breaking 
ground zero 

by Marilu Knode

I recently relocated to Seattle, leaving 

Los Angeles (where I worked at a museum) 

and its vibrant, sometimes frenetic art 

scene. What I knew about Seattle was 

general enough--the inescapable beacon of 

Northwest mystics Morris Graves and Mark 

Tobey; Dale Chihuly's glass world and the 

Pilchuck school he founded (Tina Oldknow's 

book on Pilchuck is due this fall); a 

plethora of public art; and independents 

Jacob Lawrence, Gary Hill and others who 

aren't necessarily identified with the 

region. Pop culture paints the city's image 

with a veneer of grunge, heroin use and 

teen runaways. Seattle is also a corporate 

town, with technology-titan Microsoft 

poised on the east side of Lake Washington, 

waiting to take over the world (more on 

that later). And I have to ask, what's with 

the tattoos and piercings everyone seems to 

have? A vibrant renewal of Native American 

culture? Where do they fit in a town known 

for coffee, rain and teen angst? 

When Donald Young moved his gallery from 

Chicago to Seattle several years ago, 

people were shocked. Was it a vote of 

confidence in the Seattle art world or the 

city's restaurants? (Who would have thought 

that quality of life would become an issue 

in the arts in the 1990s?) Perhaps most 

importantly, from my perspective as a 

curator and art writer, is the Seattle 

scene self-conscious enough to critically 

define what is both specific and relative 

about this local community? What about the 

long-term resident artists, dealers and

collectors in the established scene--are 

they committed to a contemporary art that 

defines something specific about our 

contemporary world?

I wanted to jump into the "there" in 

Seattle, and as luck would have it, a panel 

was scheduled debuting the area's six--yes, 

six--new curators. Organized by Seafirst 

Gallery director Peggy Weiss and moderated 

by Regina Hackett, a long-time Seattle 

Times critic, the panel drew a 300+ crowd 

of largely thirtysomethings--polite, wedged 

into the warm, maze-like space, grabbing 

seats on chairs or on top of some of the 

sculpture in the space--models for public 

art, as it happened. The overflow crowd, 

myself included, opted for the back room 

with a clear view of a monitor with good 

sound. I got the sense that everyone was 

looking for that spark that would signal 

critical mass had been reached, and hear 

the blueprint for our visual life in the 

coming year.

First to speak was former Boston Museum of Fine 

Arts curator Trevor Fairbrother, now deputy 

director and modern art curator at the 

Seattle Art Museum (succeeding Patterson 

Sims, who is back in New York as education 

curator at the Museum of Modern Art), who 

promised that he would buy as much art as 

possible! Describing his tastes as 

catholic, Fairbrother said his "number one 

priority" is to curate shows of local and 

international import--good luck!--and to 

begin a "Focus" series to spotlight local 


Sheryl Conkelton, a former photo curator at 

MOMA and the L.A. County Museum, is new 

senior curator at the Henry Art Gallery. 

Her past credits include LACMA's recent 

Annette Messager survey, and the tuned-in 

"Deliberate Investigations" group show 

there in 1989. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, 

Conkelton defined the parameters of the 

curator's responsibilities--to be 

everything to everyone at all times. 

She succeeds Chris Bruce, who has become 

director of the new Meyerson & Nowinski Art 

Associates gallery near Pioneer Square. 

Bruce will be a hard act to follow; he 

organized many of Seattle's high-profile 

shows, including the Gary Hill 

retrospective and the Ann Hamilton 

installation that represented the U.S. at 

the 1991 São Paulo Bienal. M & N, by the 

way, is certain to be an important addition 

to the local scene; so far it has shown 

work by Nicholas Africano, Hannelore Baron 

and L.A. painter Dennis Hollingsworth, 

among others. 

The third member of the panel was Kristy 

Edmunds, curator at the Portland (Ore.) Art 

Museum during 1990-95 and now founding 

director and curator of the new Portland 

Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA). 

Edmunds has managed to raise a budget of 

$165,000 a year, with no money from 

government sources and with no permanent 

exhibition facility, to present shows and 

performances at various spaces around town. 

PICA's next project, "Traversing 

Territory," will feature four sections by 

four area curators (to be announced) 

examining contemporary art in the 

Northwest, a region that for this purpose 

includes Oregon, Washington and British 

Columbia. Edmunds' remarks made a 

significant impression because of her clear 

advocacy of art and artists--PICA has 

become a significant voice in the 

alternative community scene.

Cece Noll, the new permanent collections 

curator at the Tacoma Art Museum, expressed 

a commitment to adding the works of 

Northwest artists to her collection, and 

noted that it is the recommendation of 

other artists that helps drive her 

thinking. When someone asked what she 

thought of Bill Gates's extensive purchases 

of reproduction rights of art works, Noll 

replied, tellingly, that she wished he 

would spend more money buying real art. 

Speaking of Gates, you'll all remember how 

in the '80s in L.A., the Getty Trust's huge 

fortune was frequently mentioned, 

hopefully, as the solution to the financial 

problems of various local arts groups. Up 

here in Seattle, it's the M-word that's on 

everyone's lips--Microsoft. Microsoft did 

recently donate money to the Seattle Art 

Museum (for education), and has a corporate 

collection that contains around 2,000 works 

spread around 45 buildings on its corporate 

campus. But clearly, such efforts clearly 

failed to sate their constituency. Someone 

even remarked that Microsoft should sponsor 

a computer-art festival. The Seattle Times 

recently ran an article speculating on the 

long-term philanthropic impact of Microsoft 

stockholders and staff--but none of the 

charities mentioned were visual arts 


The Tacoma Art Museum has been hyping its 

hip-quotient with music-world input, 

hosting the touring "It's Only Rock 'N 

Roll" show as well as the promising 

"Strats, Studios and the Seattle Sound: An 

Experimental Music Project," the first 

outing of the Experimental Music Project 

(which was to have been a Seattle-based 

Jimi Hendrix Museum but broadened its 

scope--I would assume to broaden its 

audience) . Although located outside of 

Seattle proper, the Tacoma Art Museum seems 

able to scoop larger institutions with some 

of its curatorial choices.

The Portland Art Museum's new curator of 

contemporary art, Kathryn Kanjo, spoke of 

her experience at the San Diego Museum of 

Contemporary Art, where as curator she 

found herself part of the celebrated 1993 

"Art Rebate" controversy. For a multisite 

exhibition examining the San Diego-Tijuana 

border community, artists David Avalos, 

Louis Hock and Elizabeth Sisco handed out 

$10 bills to undocumented workers as a 

reward for their role as taxpayers and for 

doing the low-wage jobs that keep prices 

down. Needless to say, the resulting howls 

of outrage from opportune politicians 

caused the National Endowment for the Arts 

to ban the use of any of its grant funds 

for the work. Kanjo insisted that 

institutions have an obligation to take 

risks to keep themselves honest despite the 

potential for censorship at either a local 

or federal level.

Last but not least was Michael Crane, 

senior curator at the Bellevue Art Museum 

(BAM). BAM is housed in a small, carpeted 

space on the third floor of a mall in 

Bellevue, and has a lively exhibition 

history, including a Joseph Beuys multiples 

show and an exhibition of Edward Kienholz's 

merry-go-round. Drop-in traffic is 

virtually nonexistent, though, and the 

museum is planning to move to a new, stand-

alone building. Crane gave slight pause to 

the audience when he confirmed that the 

museum would probably deaccession its 

entire collection of 250 works upon its 

eventual move. 

My own curiosity about the local community 

was partially answered when I visited 

Crane's juried Northwest Annual, which 

started as a crafts fair 50 years ago. The 

show included some beautiful if strictly 

formal photography, some nice furniture and 

not much glass (surprising--is that because 

the curator juried them out or because 

glass artists aren't in need of this 

opportunity?) The most interesting work was 

by a collective of artists called Soil, 

recent art-school graduates who have opened 

their own cooperative gallery. Their 

frenetic installation was a group effort of 

some 24 individual artists. 

Over-all, few if any specific exhibition 

ideas were mentioned by panelists mainly 

because no one asked. This, to me, would 

have been critical to learning each 

curator's predilections and how they 

understand this community and context. So, 

this is what we can expect: Conkelton, 

Noll, and Fairbrother's first shows will be 

from their respective permanent 

collections, with Conkelton also 

programming a new Media Gallery and "a 

dramatic two-story space" in the Charles 

Gwathmey-designed, expanded Henry Art 

Gallery, which opens in April 1997. Kanjo's 

fall show is of L.A.-based artist Diana 

Thater and Michael Crane's is of Roger 


As curators for the two most visible 

Seattle institutions, Fairbrother and 

Conkelton can be expected to suffer 

considerable pressure to balance national 

and international artists with local 

talent, the bane of curators everywhere. In 

this community where "Northwest" is applied 

liberally as an artist description, I have 

to wonder how it will turn out.

Some have mentioned to me their sense of a 

lull in the arts here--alternately ascribed 

to leadership changes at the museums, the 

Henry Art Gallery's being closed for the 

last year or even the lay-offs at Boeing, 

an important regional employer. Or is 

Seattle is reaching for the next visible 

plateau? I personally am banking on the 

hope that Seattle is poised, as was Los 

Angeles two decades ago, to make a big 

splash in the arts. 

Join us next time for answers to the 

questions: What's in Seattle's water that 

produces Bill Gates and Peter Norton? Who's 

writing about art in Seattle, and what's 

being said? Despite NAFTA, how many ideas 

and artists flow between Vancouver and 

Seattle? And my final query: is bad 

painting worse than bad glass art?

MARILU KNODE is a curator reinventing her 

life in Seattle at