Precisely nobody is happy to see Michael Darling go. Darling announced last week that in July he's leaving Seattle Art Museum, where he's been curator of modern and contemporary art since 2006, to take the prestigious chief curator job at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
It's no surprise: Darling has always been on his way up. He arrived at SAM from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where he helped organize the famous Takashi Murakami show Superflat. Here he organized the landmark Target Practice: Painting Under Attack, 1949–78 as well as the under-the-radar Thermostat: Video and the Pacific Northwest. It was the first time anyone had taken stock of contemporary video by artists in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC, and it showed at Art Basel Miami Beach and at SAM. Darling's show of artists' responses to Kurt Cobain's life and music opens May 13; who knows whether it will fly or flop. But, in general, you could count on Darling.
Darling is the latest in a string of accomplished curators to move through the rotating door of this position at SAM. He follows the brilliant Trevor Fairbrother (a Sargent scholar) and the savvy and charismatic Lisa Corrin (who worked on the Baja to Vancouver show and now, to the envy of her peers, is director of the Williams College Museum of Art). What distinguished Darling was his genuine commitment to the art of here and the art of afar. In town, he showed up everywhere, and his exhibitions and acquisitions reflect that he didn't simply live and work here, he thought here.
There's hand-wringing every time someone leaves this position—why can't SAM keep its great curators?—and SAM certainly is not the nationally outstanding museum it wants to be (and sometimes has boasted of being). But SAM also manages, each time, to turn around and hire someone whose leaving we all bemoan, and, each time, someone who makes the museum stronger. And Darling proved once and for all that you don't need to age in Seattle to care meaningfully about it while you're here.
How could the museum improve on Darling? I'd like to see a truly daring modern and contemporary curator at SAM. Somebody who bristles at the tacit rule that general art museums only do major contemporary shows of already established art and ideas. Or, hell, somebody who bristles at most of the tacit rules of a general museum, since they have very little to do with art.
Take a chance, SAM. What do you have to lose? You'll only have to bear the risk until the next inevitable departure—and that may be a good thing.