Sylvia Wolf

After an eight-month search, the Henry Art Gallery has appointed Sylvia Wolf, 50, as its next director. She will take over at the contemporary art museum, located at the University of Washington, on April 14.

By all accounts, Wolf is not a household name, a flashy personality, or an agent for radical change. Instead, according to colleagues around the country, she is a respected thinker and connoisseur, an impassioned professor, and an effective fundraiser who represents a wave of promising new women directors at American museums.

”It’s long overdue,” Indianapolis Museum of Art director Maxwell Anderson said of her entry into museum administration. “I wish she’d made the transition earlier, for the good of our industry.”

Anderson formerly headed the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where Wolf has spent the last eight years. From 1999 to 2004, Wolf was chair of the photography department at the Whitney and since 2004, she has been an adjunct photography curator there.

From 1987 to 1999, she was a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she organized more than 25 photography and contemporary art exhibitions, ranging in subject from the 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits of women to works by German photographer and video/performance artist Dieter Appelt.

“She’s one of the most bright, articulate, focused curators that I’ve met,” said Sarah Greenough, the head of photography at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. “I see her very much as a leader.”

A native of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Wolf originally wanted to be a geologist. Instead, she earned her bachelor’s degree in French literature from Northwestern University, then went back to school for photography. She earned her master’s degree in fine arts at the Rhode Island School of Design, then took a job at a museum instead of waiting tables as a starving artistÑand got hooked.

“I’ve been working in museums for 20 years, and I was looking for a place that could use my skills and yet could offer me a chance for growth and risk,” Wolf said in a phone interview. “I was pursuing a number of options through the fall, but this is the one for me.

“I think that a university museum both has the opportunity and the prerogative, really, to put on a program that invites discussion and debate.”

Wolf already has proven to be effective in embedding the museum more deeply in the intellectual hub of the university. In part because of her advocacy, UW and the museum’s nonprofit board of trustees have agreed to split the cost of an annual visiting faculty position devoted halftime to teaching, and halftime to working at the museum, starting next academic year.

“The idea is that, annually, new blood will come in,” she said. Appointees might be artists, scholars, or curators.

“She got the university to agree?” said Bill True, a Seattle contemporary art collector and trustee of the museum who co-chaired the search committee that hired Wolf. He hadn’t heard the final word. “That’s great! She’s great. She’s just such a wonderful combination. The number one criteria we used was love of art. I know that sounds kind of silly, but standing in front of art with her was a joy, and then things flow from thatÑthings like management ability.”

Olga Viso is another promising female director fairly new to the field. On Wednesday, having heard the news of Wolf’s appointment, Viso took time away from her second day on the job as director of the pioneering Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to praise Wolf, calling her “dynamic, inspiring, and thoughtful.”

“I think she’s always been a leader—someone who’s just highly respected by colleagues and artists,” Viso said. “And I’m happy to hear about another woman in an important museum position. When I joined the American Association of Museum Directors about a year and a half ago, seven other women came in at the same time, and it marked the moment when (women) finally represented 50 percent of the membership.”

In the last few months, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator Madeleine Grynsztejn (a former Art Institute of Chicago curator, like Wolf) and Dallas Museum of Art curator Dorothy Kosinski have been appointed prestigious directorships: Grynsztejn at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Kosinski at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

“Sylvia, like Madeleine and Olga, is representative of the strength in the field,” said Richard Andrews, the outgoing director of the Henry Art Gallery, who has served since 1987 and who didn’t know Wolf before the search committee brought her forward for an interview.

This summer, the New York Times reported that at least 24 American museums were searching for directors. That’s probably why the Henry search committee was “not impressed with the number of people who applied,” True said.

“She was heads and shoulders above the rest in terms of the way she impressed everybody, both on the academic side and on the museum side,” he said. (True and Wolf met several years ago at the home of Seattle photography collectors Joseph and Elaine Monsen.)

Wolf has an impressive writing and teaching record. She has written a dozen books on contemporary art and photography, including Ed Ruscha and Photography, Visions from America: Photographs from the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1940-2001; and Polaroids: Mapplethorpe. Her exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s little-seen Polaroids will open at the Whitney in May; her exhibition Ed Ruscha and Photography, which originated at the Whitney in 2004, will open at the Art Institute of Chicago in March.

For almost 15 years, she has taught studio art, art history, and museum studies courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Most recently, she was professor in the master’s program for curatorial studies at Columbia University, adjunct professor in art history at New York University’s Tisch School of Art, and visiting professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Her own education continues as well. She’s currently writing her dissertation as an international fellow at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam.

The dark side of the director’s job is fundraising, but it’s nothing new for Wolf. Until recent years, photography has been on the bottom of most museums’ priority lists, so photography curators know how to scramble for money.

“I actually really enjoy fundraising,” Wolf said. “For whatever reason, I’m good at it. When I started 20 years ago, it wasn’t part of my job description, but that only lasted about two years. By 1989, I was pretty much raising all the money for the exhibitions I was doing.”

Anderson, former Whitney director, called Wolf “indispensable to me in pursuing major support.” Wolf, he said, led the charge for a climate-controlled storage vault at the Whitney, which ensures the long-term preservation of the museum’s collections of film, video, and photography. She initiated its design, raised funds, and oversaw its building.

Wolf will relocate to Seattle with her husband, Duane Schuler, a theatrical lighting designer. He happens to be a founding partner of the theater consulting firm Schuler Shook, which collaborated on the renovation of Seattle’s Opera House into McCaw Hall. Wolf happens to be a fan of Wagner, Seattle Opera’s specialty. She has seen three full cycles of the “Ring.”

jgraves@thestranger.com