Seattle’s Best

Three years after he left Los Angeles, curator Michael Darling is expanding viewers horizons, and his own, at the Seattle Art Museum


Michael Darling,
Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art
Photo: Jennifer Richard

In 2006 Michael Darling joined the Seattle Art Museum as the Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “I asked a number of colleagues who they’d go after, if they were looking for a first rate curator of art,” explains Mimi Gates, who stepped down from her position as Director at SAM in July 2009. “Almost without exception they mentioned Michael. If, they said, you could get him to move out of LA.”

Darling left Los Angeles following an almost decade long stint as Associate Curator at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. At MOCA he’d made a name for himself organizing exhibitions such as “Superflat,” a group show of works in various media by nineteen Japanese artists, which he coordinated with artist/curator Takashi Murakami, and “Roy McMakin: A Door Meant as Adornment,” which was the Seattle artist’s first museum survey. Both shows eventually traveled to the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, foreshadowing Darling’s arrival in Seattle three years ago. “In LA, I felt like the working artist audience was my primary audience–they were so vibrant and dense, a big, smart, super-engaged community. That was where you had to test your street credibility. Here I still think of working artists as my primary audience, but they’re a smaller demographic and–being a general museumÑI have to think larger.”

Darling came on board as SAM was completing an expansion that would provide seventy percent more exhibition space. Portland architect Brad Cloepfils opted for an understated design that put function before showy architectural details–a plan Darling views as a definite advantage. “I was seduced as much by SAM’s collection as the right angles on which to hang it,” he says. Darling credits McMakin, an artist known for nimbly marrying art, architecture and design, with urging him to take a serious look at what might be accomplished in the new building. “McMakin helped me open my eyes to the potential of the space,” says Darling. “ItÕs space that’s allowed us to redefine our role in the area.”

Prior to Darling’s arrival, and the Museum’s expansion, modern and contemporary art had little room to thrive. Today the north galleries on the third floor have become a key destination where visitors can consider the museumÕs vital holdings in Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop Art. Darling has even managed to create viewing areas from often overlooked spaces to show off some of the museumÕs lesser-known holdings–for example, creating a small gallery dedicated to photography out of one of the third floor passageways, known as the alley. “It’s a pity we donÕt have just one more gallery,” Darling says, smiling, “but the alley is a great place to test out ideas and play with the collection.” Currently on view are works by one of the Northwest’s best known photographers, “Everything under the Sun: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham,” (curated by Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Marisa S‡nchez) and borrowed solely from the MuseumÕs permanent collection.

Darling’s sights have stretched beyond the third floor. The second floor–host to the museum’s store, restaurant, lecture hall and auditorium–also boasts a small gallery dedicated to contemporary video, while a portion of the fourth floor is dedicated to traveling and special exhibits. “We’ve now got a pretty healthy diet of contemporary programming,” Darling grins. Darling has given new life to already established programs such as the Betty Bowen Memorial Award, an unrestricted cash prize offered annually to a living artist from Washington, Oregon or Idaho. In 2009, with an endowment fund spearheaded by Darling and Betty Bowen Committee Chairman Gary Glant, award prizes were raised from eleven thousand to fifteen thousand dollars, and awardees won the right to a museum exhibit–a practice begun by former (1987-1996) curator Patterson Sims, but only recently reinstated at DarlingÕs recommendation.

In 2008 he introduced the SAM Next program, a gallery dedicated exclusively to contemporary art. Darling sees it as a way to keep new ideas coming on a manageable scale while not breaking the budget. The program spotlights the work of local, national and international emerging artists with three exhibits a year. “I wanted to use it as a place to put Northwest art on a pedestal and as a way to challenge the local art-collecting, and art-making communities,” he states.

The first SAM Next exhibit in 2008 showcased the collaborative work of brothers Oscar Tuazon and Eli Hansen. Neither had exhibited in Seattle when Darling confidently penciled in their museum premiere. Together Tuazon and Hansen make work using whatever materials available. For SAM Next, the artists traveled to the remote Kodiak Island on the South Coast of Alaska, where they built a makeshift refuge. Returning to Seattle, more than twenty-seven hundred miles away, they constructed what they deemed a reflection, or a second version, of the original cabin resulting in a work that existed in neither location, but somewhere between the two far-flung sites. “They’re channeling a very Northwest identity,” says Darling, “A regional inflection is important. The most boring thing is when it gets too international and slick, and you can’t tell where the artist is from.”

Darling was inspired by the challenge of working with contemporary art in a general museum. “I wanted that experience. It is more exciting to have all this historical material as a backdrop. And the artists, too, have found that exciting. And I think we’ve only scratched the surface of how we can use historic objects to activate and play off of other collections we have.” Darling has managed to mix historic work with those of contemporary artists, including, for example, a tower of upright and inverted beer bottles by Hansen and Tuazon near a display of Roman glass.

In Seattle Darling found collectors who were committed to the museum and whose contributions to the museum’s holdings had created a veritable treasure trove of post-WWII paintings, many of which make up the current show, “Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-1978,” masterfully curated by Darling. “I feel that curating is so much about addressing the local context in which you find yourself. It changes with each place and is dependant upon the collectors and the interests of each location.”

Darling has planned two very different shows for next year. The first, on Alexander Calder, features all sculpture, jewelry and works on paper from local collections. “The exhibit,” says Darling, “is incredible in its scope, allowing us to trace his work from the 1920s to the seventies, across all of his major phases and interests.” It will be joined by a number of photographs and films on loan from the Calder Foundation in New York. The following exhibition will focus on Northwest grunge icon Kurt Cobain. Titled “Kurt,” the show will feature pieces by contemporary artists around the world who have incorporated Cobain into their work. “Cobain is one of the most important cultural products/producers to come out of the northwest since Mark Tobey,” observes Darling, “and this is a way to examine and honor that.”

Red Painting (Brushstroke)
Roy Lichtenstein
Oil and magna on canvas
Collection Charles Simonyi, Seattle
Courtesy of the lender, ©Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Former Director Mimi Gates has described Darling as having a unique ability to dig into a subject. “His perspective,” says Gates, “is very fresh. He’s passionate about art and about what he does.” Darling credits the city. “Seattle in some ways was a well-kept secret in terms of
the kind of collectors we have, and how devoted they are to the city and to the museum. Promised gifts are going to catapult us to the top-ranking museums with holdings of postwar and contemporary art. It’s just a matter of space. We’re in a great position to show that material in tremendous depth. And we’re continuing to pick up important pieces by contemporary artists–local and international–while we still can.” In 2007 Darling purchased a work for SAM’s collection by Seattle artist Whiting Tennis titled Bovine: The Oregon Trail Reversed. An anthropomorphic sculpture half resembling a slumbering beast, the work had received mixed response from the press. Explains Darling, “I wanted to send a message about creating really challenging works–I wanted to reward that kind of ambition.”

The same goes for Gates. She is emphatic as she declares Darling a brilliant young curator, then adds with conviction: “If you hire talented people, the key is to let them thrive–it pays off in spades. A good curator, you let them run.”
—suzanne beal