Sandra Jackson-Dumont, SAM's Remix magician, signs off

Her farewell interview: On spotlighting artists of color, letting down the Seattle Art Museum's hair a bit and tricking Millennials into learning a thing or two about art.
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Sandra Jackson-Dumont

Her farewell interview: On spotlighting artists of color, letting down the Seattle Art Museum's hair a bit and tricking Millennials into learning a thing or two about art.

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." 

“I grew up in San Francisco, a city where murals by Diego Rivera were at the bus stop. I took theater and dance from someone who danced for Sun Ra. I was always part of an environment where you were trained to imagine. So, when I think of museums, I imagine them to be these incredible places that they are."

On how museums can be both rarefied and accessible:

“Museums are sacred, they should be revered because we are the custodians of culture, of thousands of years of history, and that deserves some respect. But museums aren’t untouchable. I would love for a museum to be as commonplace as going to the movies. Hey, what should we do today? Should we go to the movies? Should we go running? Should we go to the museum?"

“You should feel some magnetic pull when a museum does something, when any institution is doing a good job. I want to create memories that 20 years from now, people go, ‘Oh, remember that time at the Seattle Art Museum…’"

On SAM Remix:

“Remix is the visual manifestation of what could be. People lined up around the corner to get in. People packed in the galleries."

“People think it’s a party. It’s actually learning through play."

“I’ll bring in a dancer and put them in a gallery to respond to a work of art, and that might be a way for people to connect to the work. If you’re uncomfortable talking about race or history or memory, maybe you’ll be more comfortable entering that subject through a work of art."

“One of my favorite things is that on that night, the museum becomes a platform to learn about other things in the city because other people are hosting tours and they and their work now becomes more well-known."

“If you come to Remix or a First Thursday, one of the things that I love is that it’s actually more diverse in the museum, on those nights, than in Seattle proper. People are coming from all over and that’s across age. I think it’s the quality of the work (that’s drawing them in)."

The memories that stand out:

“When we first opened up the Seattle museum downtown, I was going up the escalator and two patrons were talking and one of them said, ‘Oh, it’s nice to have a New York-scale institution in Seattle.’ And then literally a couple of minutes later, somebody else said, ‘Seattle is so unique. It’s nothing like New York.’ And I find that to be interesting — wanting to be like something and not. It’s a fascinating tension I’ve experienced the entire time I’ve been here."

“The other thing was there was this young lady who lost her [stuffed] bunny, during the opening festivities. It was like her blanket. She lost it and she was devastated. Her dad contacted me and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’

“Our PR person and I went on this hunt and we found it. We put it in a box, with a little SAM backpack, and sent it to his office. And he called: ‘My daughter has been thinking about what the bunny did the night before. And how he might have played with the Giant Mouse [sculpture] in the museum.’ She had constructed this entire evening with her bunny and it was so clear to me that, 'Wow, that’s what we do in here all the time — this imagined experience, this real experience.'"

On being out and about at art openings and cultural events:

“I don’t only go because it’s work. I would be going anyway. You need to be there.

“People, places, whatever, often think it’s enough to invite people to your place. A lot of research tells you: People want to feel welcome. Feeling welcome means you actually care. So, go to [art] openings. Showing up matters. Go when something isn’t happening, just to have a conversation.

“I’m always at conferences, and people ask: Do you work with community-based organizations to be a bridge to those communities? I say we work with community-based organizations because that’s the thing to do. Not because they’re a bridge to the community or not because they’re a community-based organization but you’re missing the fact that a museum is a community-based organization. That’s an exhausting conversation I have all the time."

On being a woman of color in a leadership position, and black artists:

“I know it means something to other people of color when they see me. I know that because they’ll tell me.

“I know it meant something to me when I watched a PBS special on the Studio Museum of Harlem and I saw the women working there. I was a biology major in college and I switched to art history. I thought: Oh, you can work in the art world?!

“I think there are artists that I feel like, ‘Yeah, we need to take a risk on that artist. And they’re not being shown here.’ And the goal of this Lawrence prize is to help catapult artists on their career.

“William Cordova. Theaster Gates. Heather Hart. Titus Kaphar. These are folks I’m interested in because their work engages the public in interesting ways, in thinking about critical issues. The artists that I love working with are interested in thinking as a medium. Thinking as if it’s painting. Thinking as if it’s sculpture. But also the visual manifestation of their work is beautiful, seductive, challenging and gritty. It makes you want to pull the work off the wall and take it home sometimes. And other times, it makes you feel like you could never live with this work but you want to bring everyone you know to look at it and cry with you.

“But I feel that way about Andres Serrano’s work. About Cai Guo-Qiang. About Ukiyo-e prints. You would miss the boat if you were only thinking of me and black artists. But let me tell you, there’s a love affair between me and them.”

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