Visual Art

Robin Held Is Leaving the Frye

Will Her Position Be Cut?

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Chase Jarvis
ROBIN HELD Turned the Frye into a thrill.

Seattle's most interesting museum curator is leaving museums.

Robin Held has been appointed executive director of Reel Grrls, the Seattle nonprofit that gets girls and young women involved in filmmaking. This comes after her extended tenures at the Henry Art Gallery (where she created the exhibitions Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics and Hershmanlandia: The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson, among others) and the Frye Art Museum, where she is currently chief curator (and where she's organized shows of the artists Dario Robleto, Implied Violence, and the Slovenian artist collective NSK).

She'll be at the Frye through February doing an exhibition of work by Stranger Genius Award–winner Susie Lee.

Held is a 2005 Stranger Genius winner herself. When she was hired away from the contemporary-based Henry Art Gallery for the at-a-crossroads Frye in late 2004, the move surprised everybody. Then-director of the Frye Midge Bowman told The Stranger, "In hiring Robin, I wanted to move the most avant-garde person to the most conservative museum and see what kind of chemistry arose." It was a potion that awakened the sleeping Frye. Led by her fresh ideas about the art, history, and architecture of the First Hill museum—and with the support of two successive directors and a courageous board of trustees—Held turned the Frye into a thrill. She understood showmanship without sacrificing seriousness, and she valued relationships. Even through the economic crash, the Frye has felt alive.

On the phone last week, Held sounded excited and confident. Once again, she is announcing an unexpected decision that makes intuitive sense.

"It's such a perfect fit," she said. "For the last 15 years, I have helped artists realize their biggest dreams, their biggest projects, and so many of those artists are women. I've been working with women artists at every stage of their career—young, lifetime achievement award-winners—and in many cases, those artists find it difficult to have their voices heard, or their vocabularies exceed the structures we have for hearing and understanding them.

"So two things, two things. One: I am absolutely thrilled to work with young women ages 9 to 19 who are just beginning to imagine that they could be artists and that the things they make are art. What's better? That's the thrill, really. The other thing is, it's working to change things to, let's just say, a necessary normal—where so many women thrive as artists and filmmakers and playwrights, that it's so normal for women to do all those creative things that we stop using that qualifier: woman artist, woman filmmaker, woman playwright. Then we win."

Frye director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker knew about Held's application to Reel Grrls and acted as a reference.

"The time I've seen Robin happiest is when she was transforming what we were doing away from the conventional exhibition and toward supporting what artists are doing—commissioning artist projects, what we were doing with Implied Violence and DAE [Degenerate Art Ensemble]," Birnie Danzker said. "She just really shines in those environments. So this is a logical move. It's supporting women, it's supporting emerging artists, it's supporting people who work on a cross-platform basis, and it's Seattle's continued gain."

Held is not the first MVP of Seattle art to leave museum work this year. Derrick Cartwright stepped down at Seattle Art Museum, citing too much emphasis on administration. And, though the case is slightly different, Fidelma McGinn left the helm of Artist Trust to work in philanthropy at the Seattle Foundation. It might be worth asking whether museums are the best places for people who are both creative and caring. Are museums supportive platforms from which to envision and enact social change? Then we win, Held said. Can "we win" at creating a better future from within traditional museums? How could museums nurture more interesting, connective, transformative curators? Do museums even want to?

Birnie Danzker said the Frye hasn't decided whether it will fill the position that Held is vacating. That position is "an echo of the classic 19th-century model of the museum," Birnie Danzker said. "And one of the things I'm really proud of is that we're breaking down a lot of those categories—we've had artists working with us, we've been supporting new works being created, and so it's a much more horizontal relationship with artists and the public.

"The classic role of the curator as the person who will tour you through a show and help you know what to think is really breaking down, and rightly so. So I don't know if [having a chief curator] is the right way to proceed. I doubt it, frankly. I think we will continue the commitment to the cross-platform approach that is much more horizontal and much more open to experimentation. I wouldn't want to roll that back at all."

My take is that I don't care what you call it, but losing a full-time position for a person with as much pull, creativity, and institutional support as Held would be a tragedy. Held, after all, is the one who pioneered these changes at the Frye—as the curator. recommended


Comments (9) RSS

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Wonderful article and good for her! Filmaking is such an important medium and I hope that it is a fulfilling experience. The "19th century model" comment bothers me. It's on shaky ground and closed at the top. The only thing that is important is the innovation of the people involved and the end results they can produce. It can be achieved by having a strong curator but also allow the artists more freedom. Otherwise it will be a rudderless failure.

I think a lot about what a museum should and can be. That balanced experience between looking at art and learning about art. The balance between History and work by living artists (young and old, short and long CVs)-- and how they complement each other. That balance seems to be off in most institutions.
Posted by nsingus combine on December 21, 2011 at 12:54 PM · Report this
Congrats Robin! What a great gift to the city you are!
Posted by downtownkitty on December 22, 2011 at 2:19 AM · Report this
good job well down, fresh air is always nice, thanks!
Posted by rainbearcollective on December 24, 2011 at 1:02 AM · Report this
This article seems rich in subtext and double talk, especially in the quoted statements. I sense a cover up in the language of the quotes. Many of us view Robin Held as an extraordinary asset at the Frye. We liked her in a position at Frye of such professional elevation and liked her being respected and supported there. It would be gratifying to see Robin move to a job of similar status and support. There is no reason to doubt that she looks forward to the new position. But as you imply, what could be behind it? It's interesting that Danzker did not hire Held and that the Frye has shown signs of possible financial problems. Could there have been some personality tensions here? The fact that Danzker knew of the move doesn't mean the Frye management didn't influence the move. Held could have been hauled into an office or taken to lunch and have been told something indicating her Frye job was not secure well before she moved to move. Iinstitutions are skilled in keeping inside scoop hidden. Attending the Museum Director's panel on art censorship demonstrated how crafty and refined directors are in careful speech and spin.The Frye let Yoko Ott go apparently over budgetary issues. Was it in a slide? I'm reminded of the Social Linguist, Deborah Tannen, who puts forth the idea of metalanguage. The idea is that humans tend to hide what's going on verbally and what matters is in the subtext of their speech.…

It's seems a bit curious what Danzker is getting at when she points out that Held prefers unconventional exhibitions and when Danzker seems to limit Held's job description to mostly giving tours. Odd language. It seems curious to call up Victorian museum habits as desirable and horizontal. I'm not sure, historically, the 19th century museum was very mature but rather a new idea birthing itself. The "horizontal" reference could indicate the gain of eliminating Held's job so Danzker can have more direct contact with artists.These are two wonderful and capable art scene women. There may have been friction or whatever; we will never know. I do suspect Held is in a holding mode waiting for opportunity.

In the last number of decades, the health of the art world has followed the health of the economy. When New York and America took over as the driver of the art world from Europe, the west and the dollar was the center of world economics aided by smart cultures that were involved in a very profitable colonial resource grab in what was called the third world. Looking back suggests America's economic power was and will be a temporary bubble. What's so wonderful is that regardless of conditions artists seem incapable of stopping what they do. Even if not for money. We want the beauty of the Frye to survive and not see something strange like corporate advertisements incorporated into exhibits like we see in sports and universities. We are stuck with hard times and a complete change in the drivers of the world economy and the health of nature. It is a bit scary raising questions about if the ways of the past can continue. I'm thinking art will be with us till the end. The so called, third world, has grown to act like we did. This is competition on every plane that makes us all more equal but exhausts the resources. Luckily these new contenders will insist on grabbing membership in making contemporary art. This puts a new kind of pressure on the available quality of existence and art making. All so interesting.
Posted by GFinholt on December 26, 2011 at 7:37 PM · Report this
It seems to me that instead of losing a person and a role at the Frye like Robin, let's think of a new position that melds performance and presentation. Who could work between the roles of the dramaturg and the curator? A curaturg? Our world is changing, and so are roles of the people who help us interpret it. Let's think CURATURGY!
Posted by Claire Maria on December 29, 2011 at 1:09 PM · Report this
Duh-oh! i edited my "shaky ground/rudderles failure" comment but forgot to hit SAVE before I posted. My apologies folks. The Fry's inner workings are none of my business. Happy trails Robin. I hope the Fry continues to be a destination for great contemporary art.
Posted by nsingus combine on January 3, 2012 at 2:30 PM · Report this
Congratulations to Robin and Reel Grrls. Creative individuals need change to grow.
Posted by Helen Lessick on January 19, 2012 at 8:40 AM · Report this
irony is dead. antonin artaud
Posted by denis on January 19, 2012 at 1:18 PM · Report this
Ironing is dead, too!
Posted by Cornball on January 22, 2012 at 11:29 AM · Report this

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