In her eight years at Seattle Art Museum, Sandra Jackson-Dumont has foregrounded artwork made by artists of color confronting tough subjects. But the work of art that moves her most in the museum's collection is a medieval Italian painting. The Flagellation is an unsurprising triangular composition of Jesus flanked by two men about to rain blows on him, framed in a pretty, decorative mount with worn red velvet. But it's not the image she loves—it's the gouges you can still see on the painting. People were so mad when they saw the painting that they flagellated the flagellators, gouging out their eyes and scratching at their legs. Right there, we see material proof that art causes action. It has an effect. It doesn't just hang on a wall flaunting its irrelevance.
It's Jackson-Dumont's calling to tend that easily severed link between museum and society. It's the gift she takes with her to the largest museum in the country as she moves this spring to head up education at New York's vaunted Metropolitan Museum of Art. All museum educators say they do this kind of work, but Jackson-Dumont puts her cards on the table.
"I am definitely political," Jackson-Dumont said in a phone conversation. "There's some things you can't do at a museum. But the artists can." She smuggles in their content.
She curated LaToya Ruby Frazier's exhibition of photographs at SAM documenting the scars of racism, environmental destruction, and economic exploitation on Frazier's hometown, family, and body. "I've seen people cry in this show," she said. Frazier won SAM's Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize, which is $10,000 and a solo exhibition given every two years to an early-career African American artist. In addition to more typical education-director work, Jackson-Dumont has overseen the prize and the Knight/Lawrence gallery, the only space in the museum named after an artist. The previous winners were Titus Kaphar, whose remakes of white history paintings are interrupted by black history, and Theaster Gates, who rescues lost histories by making stand-alone objects and taking over art-world spaces as well as whole buildings. Gates's show The Listening Room sparked related satellite activities around the city.
"I saw people talk about the politics of history in Titus's show, and I saw people talk about real policy in Theaster's show," Jackson-Dumont said. "Museums are places where you can get at these really tough issues through something that tastes like ice cream going down. I've had conversations [over The Flagellation] about conflict resolution, about pure painting, about literacy, about class, about Chris Ofili's work [a Virgin Mary portrait incorporating elephant dung] being attacked at the Brooklyn Museum. That attack erupted an entire conversation about funding and who has the right to decide. And what are the excrements that came out of Christ's body? This artist of color comes in and brings this conversation that becomes a disruptive dialogue, but one that is really real, that touches people deeply."
The Met is a behemoth with collections stretching across time and geography, and it hasn't particularly been known for its attention to the contemporary moment—though that's been changing. Next year, the Met will start modern and contemporary programming at the building formerly known as the Whitney Museum of American Art, which is moving downtown. Jackson-Dumont's hire is another bid for relevance.
Moving back to New York "creates a portal" with Seattle, a place she unwittingly fell in love with, she said. She's keeping her house in the Central District for now.
Meanwhile, SAM should continue advancing the work she's done to defrost the museum and reconnect it to people and their passions. "It's institutional work, it's not Sandra's work," Jackson-Dumont said.
She had parting words of advice for Seattle: "I think people need to show up, frankly. Practicing institutional or artistic or community critique without participating is just really not that interesting, nor does it have a backbone. I don't mean just once, and I want artists to show up for more than their own shows. I go to a lecture, and the audience is very small, and then the critique is that we don't get enough artists in this town. We should have full houses. There's a level of conversation that can happen then. And I don't know if people understand the visual impact of people showing up—on funders, staff, morale."
The extent to which Jackson-Dumont showed up at events is the reason news of her departure brought a wave of inordinate depression; every time I talk to somebody about it, they look like they're suffering from an affliction. That level of loyalty is rare. Farewell.