ANDY WARHOL. NICK CAVE. Exhibits on baseball and Kurt Cobain. Dance parties till midnight and absinthe cocktails. Funny, but it sounds like someone born after 1980 curated this year’s lineup at Seattle Art Museum. Is this the same place that started as a boutique gallery of Asian art?
In keeping with its quarterly after-hours fete SAM Remix, the museum itself has been mixing it up of late, reaching out to new sectors of the community with bigger, more daring, contemporary work; programming aimed at the young and restless; and exhibits with international appeal. It was a coup when SAM secured 150 Pablo Picassos for the fall, and it’s no coincidence it happened early in the tenure of 48-year-old new director Derrick Cartwright.
“Seattle’s in a position to do something bold that expresses the forward-thinking-ness of this community,” Cartwright told me at our first meeting back in December. “We have the chance to do things of international significance. That’s the niche we can fill, to be an international player in the art world for the benefit of the entire Pacific Northwest. And I hope to create an atmosphere where good experiments are possible.” Two months later, he announced the traveling Picasso show—the biggest exhibit the museum has undertaken since Treasures of Tutankhamun rolled through in 1978, drawing 1.3 million visitors. Call it a very good experiment.
Even before Cartwright stepped in, SAM had slated two exhibits beginning in May that (ironically) push the boundaries of identity: Kurt, a mixed-media study of the Nirvana rocker that both honors his career and dissects his demons; and Love Fear Pleasure Lust Pain Glamour Death, a collection of lesser-known, more intimate Andy Warhol works—Polaroids, self-portraits, screen tests of muses such as Edie Sedgwick. In a way, these shows are both a safe bet and a gamble, banking on the star power of the names but appealing to a smaller demographic of museumgoers: the elusive 18-to 35-year-old crowd.
Cartwright, who helped elevate San Diego Museum of Art’s international reputation before coming here, admits that no museum is in the mood to take financial risks right now. But SAM has an infusion of cash—a $750,000 Wallace grant—to dedicate to “building the museum’s future audience.” SAM Remix attendee, that means you. Could the leadership at the city’s largest museum be in the mood for some creative risk-taking? “I’ve always felt that one of my roles was to disrupt people’s expectations of the institution,” Cartwright said. “If you visit every two months, you shouldn’t see the exact same things on the wall. You should be surprised by something you didn’t expect to see.”