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The Frye Museum: Seattle’s art world MVP

In the center of the Frye Museum's newest exhibit sits a trio of outsized white wooden gossip benches. For the most part, this cluster mirrors the ubiquitous three-seated gossip chairs sprinkled throughout the rest of the museum. There's just one difference: Each of this trio rests atop twelve open cubbies, which correlate to each of the 36 Northwest artists featured in “Chamber Music” — just one of three exhibits now on at the Frye. The cubbies alone command return visits to the gallery.

Gossip chairs in the Frye's "Chamber Music" exhibit. Photo: Richard Nicol.

Dipping into the cubbies delivers private journals, prints and manifestos by University of Washington art students, simple ceramics, art supply tool boxes and individually-wrapped gifts, left each day for visitors to take home. They are a connection to the past forty years of art creation in Seattle. Here, you have a chance to stop, to muse and to feel, in some instances, a connection to the artists themselves.

It’s time to reconsider the Frye. Gone are the dimly-lit galleries reminiscent of a fusty Victorian drawing room and the walls covered with late 19th and early 20th century European art. In their place are spacious, newly renovated galleries; Permanent Collection exhibits that showcase the art in new ways; cutting-edge contemporary visual, musical and performance art exhibitions; numerous film and lecture series; and extensive community outreach programs.

Three years ago, at the depths of the economic recession, the museum was faced with a decision: Hunker down and become a collection with a café or make bold investments that support Seattle artists and the city’s role in the global art community. The Frye chose not to hunker, investing in exhibits that breathed new life into the museum and the Permanent Collection. More significantly, led by the vision of Director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, the museum decided to play a more central civic role by expanding how it engages with Seattle’s diverse communities.  

Last year’s renovations brightened and opened up the galleries. The new directorial team of Birnie Danzker and Scott Lawrimore — recently appointed deputy director of collections and exhibitions — brings a breadth of scholarship and curatorial experience, a desire for dialogue as a way to move the institution in new directions and a fierce commitment to collaborative efforts. 

“We started to look at what surrounds us: the cathedral, the school, the hospitals, the major research institutes, and nearby we have Yesler Terrace and Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, food banks and food lines,” Birnie Danzker explains. “We’re dealing with issues of homelessness, dementia in an aging population, poverty.” 

It is the job of the Frye’s remarkable team of professionals to establish links between the museum’s exhibitions, lectures and film series and community programs. Then, as Birnie Danzker puts it, “the possibilities that open for us are limitless.”

Lawrimore agrees. “The paradigm shift at the Frye in recent years towards greater civic and international relevance has been exciting to witness, and has deepened and gained momentum under Jo-Anne’s leadership.”

The pair are building on the strong commitment to contemporary art Birnie Danzker created with then-Deputy Director Robin Held during Held’s seven influential years at the Frye (2004 – 11). During those years and since, the Frye has sponsored exceptional individual and multi-media exhibits. In 2010, an archer with the Seattle-based multidisciplinary performance group Implied Violence shot arrows at a wax throne in the Frye’s reflecting pool, while a dozen dancers made the pool their stage.

Implied Violence, 2010. Photo: Steven Miller.

Later, in 2012 Li Chen, a leading Taiwanese sculptor, explored issues of eternity and perfection, with other-worldly towering constructions made from simple wood, rope, and clay. These and other exhibits have distinguished the Frye as a world-class exhibitor of contemporary art.

Current Exhibits

With the opening of its sixtieth anniversary exhibits this year, The Frye has moved solidly into the center of local arts circles as well. Their latest trio of exhibits has left viewers at once exhilarated and confounded. The first, a labor of love by museum director Birnie Danzker, is an unprecedented collection of work from Russian-American émigré Nicolai Fechin (1881 – 1955). The Frye's own collection of Fechin's portraits and still lifes, which combine formal imagery with a modern-American abstract expressionism, have been reunited with a traveling exhibit of Fechin's work. As one reviewer wrote, “To serious Fechin scholars, this show is the equivalent of a Beatles reunion at Benaroya Hall.”

Nicolai Fechin portrait. Photo: Frye Museum Collection.

The other two — Lawrimore’s debut exhibits — are inspired by the first published work of James Joyce, a collection of 36 poems called “Chamber Music.” The first, “36 Chambers,” is a collection of paintings from the Frye’s Founding Collection selected by museum staff based on their interpretation of Joyce’s poems. The exhibit highlights the sense of collaboration behind-the-scenes at the Frye and the rich perspectives offered by the museum team.

It is the second of Lawrimore’s exhibits though that has the Seattle arts community talking.Chamber Music” includes works by 36 Northwest artists, commissioned in response to musical compositions based on Joyce's poetry. The result spans generations and reflects a broad aesthetic spectrum. Familiar names from the 70s and 80s (Bill Ritchie, Mary Anne Peters and Carl Chew) share space with younger artists, such as Rafael Soldi, Klara Glosova and Todd Jannausch.

Bill Ritchie's "Poem Stamp." Photo: Bill Ritchie.

What makes the exhibit all the more interesting is that each artist was selected not just for their artwork, but for their organizing role in the Northwest arts scene. “What this particular group shares as a collective is a commitment to producing artist-generated activities in the Pacific Northwest,” explains architect Alan Maskin, who agreed to participate because of the exhibit’s intriguing subtext. “When I look at the “Chamber Music” installation, I can’t help but recall that these people created Artist Trust, the original CoCAVital 5Walden 3 . . . the list goes on.”

As a means of encouraging this creative overlap, Lawrimore presented a five-week lecture series that examined the artistic and cultural landscape of the Northwest – particularly as it pertains to private philanthropy, artistic enterprise and civic responsibility. After each lecture, local artists, activists, gallery owners and philanthropists discussed the ideas raised, giving audiences a chance to learn about Seattle’s extraordinary creativity in the face of financial difficulty.

“Remarkable,” exclaims veteran Seattle arts consultant and writer Anne Focke. “He showed 36 artists who do not stand alone, who are not only woven in together with each other, but with many other overlapping communities.”

Sharon Arnold, one of the younger artists in “Chamber Music,” echoes these thoughts. “The Frye, by virtue of gathering all of these artists together under one roof, is demonstrating its desire to return to its roots as an engaged art institution that cares about nurturing contemporary art in its city. This museum is tracking the artists in this city.”

A few museum visitors criticized “Chamber Music” as gimmicky on some level, so disconcerting was it to leave the traditional Fechin work and enter the spacious gallery of such dissimilar art. However, the exhibit is a perfect corollary to the Frye’s Founding Collection, which is based on the art of the late 19th century Munich Secession, an influential Modern movement committed to experimentation, diversity and international perspectives.

Considered in this light, spending time with the 36 artists in “Chamber Music” may challenge you to see your own world differently. When you question what on earth some of these art pieces mean, you might want to think about John Berger’s words in “Ways of Seeing.”

“The artist sets out to improve the world, not in the way that a reformer or a revolutionary does, but in his own way, by extending what he believes to be the truth, and by expressing the range and depth of human hopes.”

Community Partnerships

As impressive as the Frye’s engagement with local and international arts communities may be, it is the museum’s dedication to serving neighborhood needs through a robust offering of public programs that takes visitors by surprise. Three years ago, recognizing the dramatic increase of Alzheimer’s disease and the aging population of the Frye’s visitors, the museum created an arts-engagement program for individuals living with dementia. The only museum-based arts program of its kind in Washington state and only one of 40 nationwide, here:now offers gallery tours and art classes for individuals living with dementia and their caretakers.

Participants in the Frye's here:now. Photo: Jill Hardy/ Courtesy Frye Art Museum.

Dr. Lee Burnside, a University of Washington gerontologist, is studying whether here:now could be replicated in other places. “Most of the people who participate in here:now have some experience with art and the museum setting,” Burnside explains. “We are examining how well we can improve the focus on different populations, how we can take this program out to other types of care centers, how we can tweak the current format.”

Another characteristic of the Frye’s outreach is its commitment to long-term, more sustainable partnerships. In 2007, the museum created a three-year arts education partnership with West Seattle’s Roxhill Elementary. The program included professional development for teachers, who learned to practice Visual Thinking Strategies with students to help them connect with art, learn collaboratively through it and practice critical thinking. After three years of training, Roxhill teachers now lead their own school visits at the Frye, using the museum as a resource for learning.

“Our community has really been strengthened, because it’s not just the really good writers or the good mathematicians who are shining,” says Peter Weschler, a fifth-grade teacher at Roxhill. “Even the quiet students have an opportunity to express what they see and the other students hear their voices.”

In the last year, the museum has made an effort to reach out to closer neighbors as well, combining forces with Swedish Medical Center to offer a free weekly Mindfulness Meditation and working with Seattle University to develop an after-school arts program at the nearby Bailey Gatzert Elementary.

“The Frye’s commitment is above and beyond,” says Eddie Lincoln, Seattle University’s Youth Initiative Coordinator. “They invested in these kids and the school with an eye on sustainability. The principal is now inspired to work with the Frye to possibly add more arts education back into the curriculum. He sees great value in this partnership with the Frye.”

When the Seattle City Council approved the demolition of Yesler Terrace last year to make way for new, mixed-income development, the Frye backed University of Washington design professor Tad Hirsch’s Yesler Terrace Project. Hirsch worked with neighborhood youth to collect field recordings, audio interviews and performances that reflected their experience of the neighborhood and their concerns about its uncertain future.

The Frye’s support of local artists and commitment to building community is a remarkable model for what a museum can be as a civic partner. Birnie Danzker’s guiding philosophy extends the vision. “How do you respect and allow everyone to have their opinions while creating bridges that create a harmony?” she asks. “There has to be something harmonic about our engagement in our society.”

Birnie Danzker credits the Frye’s Trustees for “recognizing and supporting the idea that we can serve our community in a special way if we commit to in-depth and long-term projects.”

Still, for all of its commitment to community and outreach, the Frye’s work remains little-known in Seattle. Birnie Danzker says that’s not an accident. “There has always been wonderful work going on, and some of what I’d call the restraint is not out of indifference of wanting to reach out to the community,” she explains. “In some cases it’s out of a strong belief that we don’t want to exploit the people who are involved in our programs. And in that, it is a quiet service. People are aware, but it has to do with respect.”

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