Earlier this week, Seattle Art Museum announced that after a yearlong search to replace Derrick Cartwright, it is hiring Kimerly Rorschach to be its next director; she’ll start in the fall. The news made a dramatic sweep through the American museum world, because, it’s fair to say, Kimerly Rorschach is a star. (No, there is no “b.”)
She’s this year’s president of her peer group, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which represents 200 museums in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. She was runner-up in last year’s most prestigious director search, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (which instead resulted in the hiring of Gary Tinterow, respected Metropolitan Museum of Art curator).
“She’s really the top of the class,” Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong said in a phone interview. “Your city should be in a position to leap forward. She’s elegantly empathetic, she’s poetic and direct, she’s curious and engaging, she’s courageous in the right way—all the attributes you want in someone who’s associated with creativity…What’s important is that she makes right decisions, she’s a creative person, and she really puts the artists and art in the center of her universe, which is quite what you want in a leadership situation.”
More leaders-among-leaders of American art museums lined up to praise Rorschach. Art Institute of Chicago director Douglas Druick described her as “sort of a magical package of skills and abilities” including warmth, collegiality, and the passion and knowledge to be an “enormously effective fundraiser.” He unintentionally (but wonderfully) resorted to rhythm and rhyme: “She gets the job done with vision, precision, and building coalition.” They still miss her in Chicago, he said, where she directed the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago for 10 years before assuming her current post as the head of the Nasher Museum at Duke in 2004.
“Kim is the consummate museum professional,” said James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust in LA, calling the appointment “inspired.”
“I think she does really smart, interesting shows,” said Tacoma Art Museum director Stephanie Stebich, citing Rorschach’s response to the censorship of queer exhibition Hide/Seek in Washington, DC, after harassment from the Catholic League: Rorschach pulled together a small survey of frank, sometimes disturbing art images of Christ since the 12th century, called The Body of Christ. “I would have borrowed it in a heartbeat if we could have,” Stebich said.
Warm, collegial, fiercely determined, mature, a great listener, decisive, sincere, approachable, well-connected, a hard worker, a deep thinker, collaborative, civic-minded, genuinely interested in art of all eras (though her own specialty is English painting of the 17th and 18th centuries, which she studied as a young Fulbright scholar in London in the 1980s)—all these words were used to describe Rorschach by her peers, colleagues, and employees in interviews this week. Sylvia Wolf of the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington voiced a common refrain: “I’m a great fan of Kim’s.” Wolf described Rorschach’s tenure at the top of AAMD as “showing extraordinary leadership, strong advocacy, and effective communication.”
“We’ve been interested in her since the very beginning of our search,” said SAM board chairman Charlie Wright.
When the appointment was announced on Monday morning, Rorschach herself only had time for a 10-minute phone interview from the director’s office at Seattle Art Museum, where Wright and SAM board president Winnie Stratton were also on the speakerphone.
Rorschach came across as poised and direct—as unflappable as a (good) candidate for president of the United States. “Strategic” was her buzzword, which is not terribly stylish (or poetic). But it seems to exemplify her record of getting things done while making big-picture sense.
“I think the secret to success in the museum-director game is to really understand the unique context that you’re in, and to think very strategically within that very unique context,” she said. “So I aspire to be a very, very strategic thinker. Every decision is strategic. Everything matters. Resources are limited, and you’ve got to move forward. It’s complicated, and that’s part of what drew me to the job. I’m interested in being clear-eyed about where can we get up on the scoreboard and where does it not make sense to go.”
Rorschach has a wicked pedigree. After high school in Houston, she went to Brandeis for her BA and Yale for her MA and PhD in art history. (Later, in 2009, she spearheaded a charge that successfully blocked Brandeis’s attempt to sell off its art collection and scatter it to the winds for some short-term cash.) She held curatorial posts, including at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, before becoming a director. And she was the founding director at the Nasher at Duke, building it from scratch, “creating a very solid reputation for an institution in a very short period of time,” she said. “That’s not easy to do.”
She didn’t say it boastfully, just straightforwardly, and it was refreshing to hear her claim her accomplishments so directly.
How will she transition from academic to civic museum?
“They’re not so different as you might suppose, at least in the situation I’m in at the Nasher,” Rorschach said. “The Nasher does serve the university, but it is also the leading civic museum. We also have a national and international exhibition reputation. I would also point out that I am a senior administrator in a very, very large private nonprofit organization, which is Duke University. So it’s very complex—there are very complex questions of audience, community, mission, reach, competition for resources, fundraising. I think it’s equally as complex as what I’ll be encountering here [in Seattle].”
At the Nasher, Rorschach has worked collaboratively—with colleges and universities immediately surrounding Duke, as well as with museums like the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Guggenheim, the Tate Britain in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—on exhibitions ranging from El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III to Birth of the Cool, the first career retrospective of overlooked contemporary portraitist Barkley L. Hendricks, to The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914–18. The Nasher is organizing the first American survey of Kenyan-born, New York–based multidisciplinary artist Wangechi Mutu, which opens next year and will tour to the Brooklyn Museum.
The Nasher survey The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl traveled to museums in Boston and Miami before opening last week, coincidentally, at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Its creator, contemporary art curator Trevor Schoonmaker, has worked under Rorschach for six years.
“In a nutshell, I’m honored to have worked with her,” he said. “She’s enabled me and challenged me to do a lot of strong shows and help build the collection, and she’s put a lot of responsibility in my hands and rewarded me for hard work, and I’m really proud to have worked with her. Her staff likes her and respects her; she has great instincts and she trusts her team.
“She’s just an amazing director,” he continued. “Things that you or I or many other people would find frustrating, she enjoys as challenges. And this provides a new one.”