Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Frye Art Museum's Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker

The departing director of the Frye discusses her tenure and the state of art in Seattle.

By Seth Sommerfeld September 27, 2016

Jo anne birnie danzker ledmyp

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker leaves the Frye after the opening of To: Seattle | Subject: Personal.

In her seven-year tenure as director of the Frye Art Museum, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker has taken a uniquely hands-on approach to curating and emphasizing contemporary Seattle art with group shows like Moment Magnitude and Genius / 21 Century / Seattle. She's transformed the museum into an interdisciplinary institution that focuses on mediums beyond visual art while attempting to deeply connect with the local community, providing a megaphone to some of Seattle's marginalized artistic voices. Before she steps down from her post at the end of the month, Birnie Danzker oversees one final exhibit with To: Seattle | Subject Personal (October 1–January 8), which showcases both new commissions and significant medium-crossing modern works acquired by the museum during her tenure.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Birnie Danzker about the chance for reflection To: Seattle offers, the Frye's multidisciplinary growth, and the increasing displacement of Seattle artists.

What excites you about To: Seattle | Subject: Personal?

Perhaps the way in which it's titled or the way in which we sent out the notice about it gives the wrong impression. The exhibition is not about me, and it’s not about the fact that these acquisitions were made [during my tenure]. It really is about looking at artistic production, primarily in Seattle, in the first two decades of the 21st century. That’s what I’m very excited about.

The exhibit looks at the extraordinary transformation that has gone on in Seattle over that time, and also the global circumstances under which the artists were working and what impact that had on the work that was being produced. So if we look at that range, we’re looking at the impact of 9/11, then global wars, an economic recession, unemployment, displacement, and then an economic boom and more displacement. Inye Wokoma’s project, This Is Who We Are, deals with the displacement of his family and his community from the Central District.

It’s fascinating in terms of looking at the works that we did acquire in that [period] as statements of particular moments and about conditions that, in many cases, have not been resolved. It’s been a revelation for me, even just in terms of going back to the texts that the artist wrote. It’s seeing the world—and the city of Seattle—through the eyes of these truly exceptional artists.

Beyond those historical markers, what else sticks out about the collected works as a whole?

One of the characteristics of work in Seattle is that it’s collaborative. You’re looking at a collaborative community that works in a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary fashion.

I’d say that the big transformation that has taken place is in the Frye. The Frye has been transformed in response to the nature of artistic practice in the city. In 2010 we began to move away from the notion that a museum is only responsible for visual art.

In this exhibition, we have a sound and audio installation by Steve Fisk. We have works by Black Constellation—which range from film to music to adornment. Sound is inherent in D.K. Pan’s piece on the tsunami stations. The works are multilayered and complex, and that has gotten me very excited about the show.

What do you see as the importance of the Frye to the Seattle artistic community as a whole?

A museum of the 21st century has a certain set of responsibilities, both in terms of responding to the nature of practice in the 21st century environment, which is a highly technological one, and reaching out to a much broader and a much more diverse community and to try to serve their needs. And that can only occur when the artists of those communities have some sort of representation in our program. We are in a period where institutions are not only bringing us together, but also dividing us. That’s something that’s a major issue for me right now.

On a personal level, particularly after being there and personally experiencing 9/11, I felt very strongly that my own curatorial practice could not remain the same. I started to question a lot of the basic assumptions that had governed my museum practice since I started in my 20s. What is the role of a museum? I believed for a very long time that the role of a museum was essentially focused on visual objects. And I put that in question. If that’s not the case, then what are the implications for museums? And if we’ve followed that to its logical conclusion, then what role does a museum have within its community?

That led me to the first group of three shows that I did at the Frye, something called The Seattle Project. And in a project we did with Arts Corps, we had young kids actually curate an exhibition for themselves. This is where I learned from the kids, because for them it was inconceivable that there would be exhibition that didn’t have music and dance in it. It was hard to see the importance that it represented at the time. One thing that they did was put two steps on the floor facing into a blank corner. I asked why they had done it, and they said that’s so I could hear the music better. That was a personal revelation for me, the notion of movement and dance and listening and looking as being an integrated experience.

The kids composed music, which was being played in the space as part of their response to the works that were showing. They performed it at the opening, and it happened to be seen by someone who’d been asked by the White House to reach out to youth in Seattle to come to the White House during Obama’s first Black History Month. And two weeks later, these kids were sitting in the White House. [Laughs]

That started a principle that I call citizen curators, those who would open up the world to us and what museums were doing. That then became a pattern over the past seven years. One of the most famous visiting curators was, of course, Frieda Sondland, who was 90 years old at the time. Frieda taught us, or me personally, so much about the Frye’s Founding Collection. Frieda was from Germany and she had been forced to leave during the Nazi period. She taught me that the paintings in our collection have enormous personal value for people, and what that responsibility that entails in terms of making it accessible.

And from that step, we then moved into creating a collective for Moment Magnitude, where it was a poet, a performing artist, a composer, a guest curator, and myself all curating the show. And of course, with Genius there was both no curator and a million curators because the selection was made by the consensus of the Seattle art community. So, all of these… I don’t want to call them experiments… but all of these logical extensions of opening up to our community as a whole resulted in creating partnerships instead of the traditional notion of a museum educating its public about ideas.

So it’s been an absolutely amazing experience to work in this way. After having had the privilege of working in the classic European museum structure for 15 years, to then to come to Seattle as it’s been constructed and imagine what it might look like—what our institutions might look like—in a different future has been absolutely fabulous for me.

Compared to a lot of other museum directors, you’ve done a lot more curating during your Frye tenure. Why do you choose to be so hands-on with the curatorial process?

Well, in Europe, the model is very much of the curatorial director. Every director that I worked with was curating, but not to the extent that I have been. [Laughs] That came about also because at the time when I speaking with the trustees at the Frye about my leaving, one of the important discussions we had was whether or not I should hire a deputy director of collections and exhibitions before the next director came or leave the position open so the new director—in this case, Joe Rosa—would have a chance to hire the key partners that he wants moving forward. I decided to leave the spot open, so I said yes! Yes! I’ll do all this! And, of course, it’s been a particularly heavy workload, but one that I have loved. I did have the option of simplifying the shows, which I chose not to do. [Laughs] But it meant we did have Genius and we did have Young Blood and other shows that I’m very happy took place.

What do you feel is the current state of Seattle art?

I think that we have some serious work to do, because we’re in the process of losing artists. We’re not providing the number of teaching opportunities that there should be. One example of a very significant loss for this city was when [composer] Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney were offered a position [at California Institute of the Arts], so they left the city. Many artists, many of our leading artists, have sought and been denied the opportunity to find an economic model that would keep them in the city.

The artistic community has long survived on the ability to find inexpensive accommodations and a community that was large enough to collaborate so that the cost of production would not become too high. And this is all changing. Our basic services that were financially accessible to many artists are becoming harder to harder to finance. So I think that, as a community as a whole, as a funding community, the philanthropic community, has to take a serious look at providing the conditions to keep artists in our city and not force them into exile from the place that they love and where they really want to stay.

So what led you to the point where you’re moving on from the Frye?

There’s really multiple reasons. One was that I had decided, even before I started, that I would set the limit at seven years. That was from my experience being in Munich, where I was for 15 years. And I thought that was way too long. [Laughs] Not because I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. But in that system, when you’re appointed museum director, you’re actually appointed for life. And so my colleagues were remaining 25 years, sometimes even longer. I had seen the exhaustion of institutions when there is not a change of leadership. Conceptually, I felt strongly right from the very beginning that this is what I should do, no matter how much I loved what I was doing, I had to have the discipline to move on.

I want to thank Seattle. I really do. The city embraced me, and the artistic community gave me a home. The artists of Seattle have been my mentors and teachers. I’m also thankful for the support of the Frye trustees while embarking on this period of experimentation and reaching out and embracing all of the communities that we serve.

But the other part of it is… I’m pretty exhausted. [Laughs] It’s been a pretty wild time, and I’ve been working six days a week for close to seven years now. And I recognize now in my response to not make specific plans for the immediate future that I genuinely am wanting to take a break. I’m recognizing that this was the right decision. [Laughs] And I know that there are going to be more adventures that await me, but I’m looking forward to taking a wee break.

Yeah, it’s always good to take some time to recharge your batteries.

And this is also why To: Seattle is so important on a personal level, because it’s a chance to stop and look back at what the artists have been telling us all. If one hopes to make some meaningful contribution, there has to be time built in for a level of reflection. I think I would not have done a good job if I just continued. I really do need to just reflect on it, and the show has really given me a wonderful chance to start that.

To: Seattle | Subject: Personal
Oct 1–Jan 8, Frye Art Museum, Free

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