By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Change is afoot at Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and it includes a recent re-do of their American art galleries to be more culturally and racially inclusive. What is America? Who is American? These are the questions that SAM strives to answer by including Asian, Latinx, Black, and indigenous works in what was previously a series of rooms dominated by white male artists.
“The Stories We Carry” is the first major reinstallation of the American art collection in 15 years. It is also the largest collaboration that SAM has done with community members. The re-do received input from 11 local experts over a period of 15 months.
“It was a solid investment of time to find out what could be the possibilities of redirecting this thing called the American Permanent Collection,” said Mayumi Tsutakawa, part of the advisory circle, daughter of Seattle artist George Tsutakawa, and a writer and editor with a focus on Asian Americans.
SAM has done community collaboration before—notably, during their exhibition of Edward S. Curtis’ work, “Double Exposure,” in which SAM decided that this problematic artist was worth looking at in a different context, and so engaged a group of people to help guide them. The same applies to “The Stories We Carry.”
“There are a lot of new things that we’re trying out,” explained Caitlyn Fong, an intern in SAM’s Conservation Department and one of four interns brought on by SAM to combat what Fong agrees is a dearth of people of color in the art museum industry.
“There is a lack of diverse representation of people and one of the problems is people not knowing about the field, or only certain select people knowing about the field, and that limits the types of people that try to get in,” said Fong, who was able to attend the advisory council meetings and who helped document and restore art pieces that hadn’t been moved around for quite a while.
Now, the art will be displayed in a thematic way that talks about the “relationships” between them; and there are a lot of new arrivals from diverse American communities. A painting by Thomas Eakins, for example, will be side by side with a portrait by Black artist Kehinde Wiley.
“One is a traditional white man painting by a white man, and then there is Kehinde with this reclaiming of the portrait genre of painting and highlighting sitters and their dignity,” described Fong. As for Asian American art, while there was space in SAM for this demographic prior, now it will be combined in the American art galleries so as to “signal something important about what is American or who is American because then it is incorporated into the rest of the show instead of being a separate thing—and that could be meaningful,” Fong expressed.
“The Stories We Carry” will include one of George Tsutakawa’s sculptures, “Mo” or “Seaweed,” and other works by Seattle artists like Paul Horiuchi. Horiuchi and Tsutakawa were part of the Northwest School of art that rose to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s, but could be said to have started as early as 1890. This school focused heavily on Pacific Northwest nature, especially on Washington’s West side, which synced well with Asian art aesthetics and values. Tsutukawa and his wife worked with SAM during their lifetimes, and on the whole, daughter Mayumi feels her father received his due of recognition from the public during his lifetime. Mayumi’s brother, Gerard, is also a local artist, recently highlighted in the media for rebuilding their father’s famous arboretum gates, after they were stolen and destroyed.
Mayumi confirmed that SAM practiced what it preached in revamping the American art galleries. She described the American art curators at SAM as “dyed in the wool anti-racists,” who worked with a “view towards diversity.”
“During this year and a half, the entire advisory council and leadership of the museum, and also in particular these two curators, really went through a process of looking at what was there, what is currently in the permanent collection, what could be the possible themes,” she said. The thematic concept is something that SAM’s Asian Art Museum spearheaded as part of its reopening, where pieces are displayed by subject instead of location, and remains a ground-breaking approach, nationally.
Themes for “The Stories We Carry” will focus on topics such as landscape in the “Storied Places” gallery, or memory in the “Memory Keepers” gallery. There will also be ongoing temporary exhibits “to explore fresh perspectives,” SAM explained in their news release. This re-look at how they do things is part of SAM’s overall plan to be community-focused and to revitalize its spaces. For instance, SAM recently made a decision to no longer sell special exhibit tickets separately in an effort to encourage visitors to walk through the entire museum, not just one part, and then leave, which often occurs with the special shows. Several of SAM’s other curators are now rethinking how they might want to rearrange their own galleries in the near future.
“[SAM has] done a good thing by including…Asian American artists along with major categories of African American, indigenous, and Latino artists,” Tsutakawa said. In the past, she pointed out, you might have seen attention to communities of color mostly in the Education Department, yet now, she continued, “I feel like the Seattle Art Museum…has done a great job and I’m looking forward to doing a deep dive into this exhibition.”
Fong, who came to Seattle from Pennsylvania for this opportunity, added, “Museums should be places where people come to learn about the communities around them. Museums are meant to connect, I hope.” With its reinstallation of the American art galleries, SAM has shown it agrees with Fong, who said that, when visiting an art museum, people should be able to “see themselves and feel like they relate to the pieces that are on view, maybe have more engaging conversations about their lives, and reflect on the places they come from.”
“The Stories We Carry” opens Oct. 20.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.