Michael McCafferty, 'the soul of SAM,' retires

For 40 years, McCafferty has executed SAM's installations, becoming a recognized master of the subtle art of designing exhibits.

Crosscut archive image.

Michael McCafferty in straw suit created by Carl Smool.

For 40 years, McCafferty has executed SAM's installations, becoming a recognized master of the subtle art of designing exhibits.

This Friday the Seattle Art Museum loses one of its most valuable assets. Not an object, but a person, and one who probably has had more impact on what you've seen and experienced at SAM over the years than any single object in the permanent collection.

Michael McCafferty's first job title at SAM was “security guard.” He retires with the title of “Director of Exhibition Design.” What that means is that for most of the last 40 years he has conceived and helped create the environments in which we experience visiting art objects and the Museum's own collections: everything from choosing the color of the walls surrounding them and designing the cases containing them to their order and positioning within the exhibit and the layout of the movable walls which direct the visitor's course through the show.

Oddly enough, there's no generally agreed upon art-world term for the job McCafferty does. “I don't know of any art school that offers an MFA in exhibition design,” says McCafferty's boss, SAM deputy director for art Chiyo Ishikawa. “It's a task that is often jobbed out to architects on a show-by-show basis. That can have mixed results: Architects think about spaces but not so much about what the spaces contain. And coming in from outside they aren't always sensitive to the particular style or aesthetics of the exhibiting institution.

“Michael has been working here for so long, he knows us and the collections and the spaces so intimately that questions like trust and mutual understanding just don't arise. You could call him the soul of this institution.”

Bruce Guenther, chief curator of the Portland Art Museum, says that “if they think about it at all, the general public thinks that an art show is like cake mix: You open the box, add a little water, and there you are. But the objects are only the ingredients in making the show: You have to turn them into an aesthetic experience, adding color, light, space. Without imagination on the part of the installer, you usually end up with a plodding chronological sequence."

“That is not Michael,” adds Guenther, who worked with McCafferty steadily during his eight years as curator of modern art at SAM. “He listens to the curator, he asks 'What's the most important thing here, what are our goals with this show, what do we want the visitors to carry away with them?' Then he goes to work to create the desired experience. Do we want intimacy or energy, do we want to start in darkness and then open up with a burst of light? His aim is to take this linear experience and turn it into something symphonic.” 

McCafferty is himself an artist. Paradoxically, all his art has been conceived for and executed in open spaces. The man charged by SAM with creating enclosed settings for unique, irreplacable objects himself makes work from dirt, gravel, straw, twigs, and wild as well as cultivated vegetation — always outdoors, often in informal settings, and always fully conscious that the work, sooner or later, will perish, eroded by the elements and time.      

At Kent State University, Michael McCafferty's major subject was English, but his response to the killing of four of his fellow students by members of the Ohio National Guard in 1970 was not a poem or a manifesto but an excavation. In an embankment on a little-used feeder road near the campus, McCafferty cut away the vegetation and turf to form a 14-foot diameter O of raw earth. “I'd always had a thing about the letter O,” he said recently. “I didn't draw things or people when I was a kid, I mostly drew Os. I thought of the one in the embankment as an 'Earth mOan': like an open mouth crying out.”

“Earth works,” “environmental art,” “site-specific installations” — all were well established ideas when McCafferty began making his own pieces. But you can't take the English major entirely out of the artist. “I remember reading a letter [poet] Charles Olson wrote to [fellow poet] Robert Creeley: 'I consider the page to be a field,' he said. Well, I decided that I would consider a field to be a page.”

McCafferty does not of course execute SAM's installations single-handed. He is the head of a team, and an unusually long-lived team: he's been working alongside Paul Martinez for 19 years, with Chris Manojlovic (who'll be interim head of the exhibition design department upon McCafferty's retirement) for 36. For the last 22 years he's relied on Ken Leback to light SAM's shows.

So how does one man successfully create exhibitions of objects as divergent as Chinese ceramics, African totems, Japanese fabrics, Impressionist paintings, and Pop sculpture? Is there a formula? “No,” says McCafferty. "But I do have one trick what helps me find the key to a design.  I look at all the material and try to find some color, not a foreground color but a trace that occurs often enough to serve as a way of tying things together.”

The next step is to create the exhibition palette: the colors which will compose a background to complement and flatter the art on show while remaining effectively invisible themselves. (“I have boxes full of color fans in my office,” McCafferty says.) The next step is to make up four or five variations of each color in the palette and create paster-sized swatches to compare and contrast under real-life gallery conditions. (SAM does not use colored light except  for special effects, and never on the art itself.)

How does an institution replace a man who is himself an institution, universally regarded as a master of his nameless trade? “You don't,” says Ichikawa, herself waiting for SAM's board to decide who her new boss will be. “Michael has created an unique role for himself in a team which is pretty unique itself among mid-size museums like ours. For the time being Chris and Paul are totally capable of carrying on in Michael's footsteps. But a new director will mean new directions in every aspect of the operation. We will all just have to wait and see what they will be.”

McCafferty himself knows exactly what he'll being doing after Friday. “First my wife and I are going to spend some time in Florida, where she has parents in their 90s who are in need of some care. After that, it will be nice to get back to making my own art full-time. We have an Airstream trailer down on the Long Beach Peninsula.  Willapa Bay has always been my studio.  I won't have any trouble keeping busy.”


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Roger Downey

Roger Downey is a Seattle writer interested in food, the arts, the sciences, and urban manners. He is currently working on a book about the birth of opera in 1630s Venice.