When word hit that Sandra Jackson-Dumont scored a huge job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — the chairman of education — the news for Seattle’s arts and culture folk was bittersweet. No one questioned Jackson-Dumont's decision to take the job: It’s The Met, after all, and it returns the 44-year-old to a place she once called home. She’s worked at both the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
But, after 7 years as Seattle Art Museum’s director of education and public programs, Jackson-Dumont is arguably the most well-known — and most affable — arts advocate in town.
She launched the wildly successful after-hours party known as SAM Remix, a quarterly happening that draws in the much-coveted 18-35 demographic. She launched the Design Your Hood program, part studio project, part field trip excursions, for teens. She created the My Favorite Things Tours, which bring in “highly-opinionated” tastemakers to share their take on museum shows. During the summer, SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park features outdoor concerts as well as evening yoga classes — another Jackson-Dumont initiative. And then there’s the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship, a program that awards $10,000 and a Jackson-Dumont-curated solo show at SAM, to an emerging black artist.
My singular Jackson-Dumont-created moment: “The Listening Room” by Theaster Gates, an homage to a Chicago record store that evoked both a schoolhouse and church.
“She’s blown the lid off the idea of a museum as an Ivory Tower,” says Sharon Arnold, an artist and Seattle gallery owner. “Her programming is inclusive and she’s created access to something a lot of people may not have felt they had before.”
Jackson-Dumont is prized for her smarts, her warmth, her energy and her tireless support of creatives. (Run into her on the street and she’s a walking calendar of the arts events going on in town, large and small).
Jackson-Dumont starts her new job next month, although she’ll be back in June, when SAM hosts the American Alliance of Museums conference. June will also mark her final Remix, so she wants to be here “to pass off all the little secrets” she says it takes to organize a dance/music/visual art event that draws a couple of thousand people at a time.
Before saying good-bye, I sat down with Jackson-Dumont to look back at her time in the city and to ask her about that phrase that institutions everywhere espouse: community engagement. We sat down in a room surrounded by the photographs of LaToya Ruby Frazier, a social documentarian whose Born By a River show Jackson-Dumont brought here.
On what she’s most proud of:
“SAM has been amazing at rethinking its relationship to communities and I don’t just mean just brown communities, but to people who are makers of things, to people who think they don’t know much about art.
(Note: Let me point out a Jackson-Dumont trademark. When she’s talking about what she’s passionate about, she can be hard to keep up with because she says a lot about a lot of things. And you don’t mind listening because what she’s talking about is often so interesting.) She starts explaining why she loves Ruby Frazier’s photographs, which document the decline of Braddock, PA, home to one of the first steel mills. “It’s about line and composition and the history of industry in America. But it’s also about EPA levels and health care. Very human issues."
“SAM is this amazing place that takes objects and holds them up as important things that we should take care of and be custodians of, but it’s not afraid to have these objects be at the intersection of difficult topics.
“I feel most proud of being able to shepherd that work in the time that I’ve been here.”
On coming to Seattle:
“When Mimi [Gates, then SAM’s director] invited me to come work here, she said she wanted the city to flow through the building. To be honest, I don’t think anyone hires me, Sandra, if they’re not interested in engagement or transformation or doing things that bridge worlds — because that’s how I’m made."
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