Seattle Art Museum has hired Michael Darling to be its new modern and contemporary curator. He starts July 5. Who is this guy? We know and we don’t know. An assistant curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art since 1998, the 38-year-old Long Beach native’s most prominent project was Superflat, which he co-organized with the artist Takashi Murakami in 2001. His current exhibition at MoCA, Painting in Tongues, is earning praise as a strong survey of single artists whose practices span mediums. In 2002, he curated Seattle artist/architect Roy McMakin’s first museum survey. Darling’s an architecture and design junkie who wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara on the furniture of 20th-century American designer George Nelson.

Just how important contemporary art is to SAM is an open question. Darling is really only the second contemporary-focused curator SAM has had; his predecessor, Lisa Corrin, departed in the fall to become the director of the Williams College Museum of Art after four years at SAM. Corrin, who had previously worked at London’s Serpentine Gallery, increased the visibility of contemporary art at the museum. Before Corrin, Trevor Fairbrother was the Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern Art and Deputy Director. When Corrin replaced him, the word “contemporary” appeared in the title; when she departed, the words “deputy director” disappeared. That administrative part of the job went to Chiyo Ishikawa, the museum’s curator of European painting and sculpture. Removing the deputy-director responsibilities from the contemporary curator’s post might be read as a demotion for the position, but freeing up more time for curating may actually have made the job more appealing.

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The expanded downtown museum, set to open in the spring of 2007, has 17,000 square feet for modern and contemporary art. How that space will be divided between modern and contemporary is anybody’s guess, but as even Darling pointed out in a phone interview Wednesday, art of the last decade is not SAM’s strong suit.

It’s only fair to note that SAM is not a contemporary art museum. Its exhibitions are restricted by what it can get its hands on. But new art attracts new audiences. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, once famously stodgy, has begun inviting artists into its vaults to curate their own shows, with revitalizing results.

Darling, 38, is obviously coming to SAM to make a mark. He wants “the ability and the responsibility to shape a museum’s program,” which he can’t do as an assistant curator at MoCA. Throughout our discussion he was politic, and doubtless he would publicly deny this, but I thought his comments on Jeremy Strick, his director at MoCA, sounded like a warning to SAM director Mimi Gates: “He’s someone that empowers his curators to do their work,” Darling said of Strick. “He definitely doesn’t meddle, and he never second-guesses us.” I hope they give him the power he wants, because I’d like to see what he would do with it.

JEN GRAVES: What’s your background?

MICHAEL DARLING: I started out at MoCA as a researcher, almost a mercenary, working for different curators on a project basis. Before that, I’d had an unexpected career, really, as an art critic. I started doing criticism just to get experience and work on my writing, but I had always planned to be a curator. First, I had a column in a paper called the LA Reader, which was then bought out and dissolved, so I moved over to the LA Weekly.

At the time, I was living in Santa Barbara and driving down; I was in graduate school from 1991 to 1997, doing my PhD in the history of modern architecture. When I got my master’s degree, I had basically a minor in contemporary art. Liz Brown [chief curator at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle] is the one who administered my exam in contemporary art!

Before that, I did my undergraduate work in art history at Stanford, from ’86 to ’90. I got interested in art in middle school. I can remember cracking open a book and seeing Picasso and Kandinsky.

Were your parents artsy?

No. I mean, my dad was an amateur photographer in his spare time, but it wasn’t an artsy family. He worked as a general contractor. My mom was a dental hygienist and a homemaker.

Did SAM recruit you? How did it work?

I actually thought I was happy—well, I was happy, just working along at MoCA. I can’t remember whether I was contacted by Lisa [Corrin] or Mimi’s office (Mimi Gates], but I had dinner with Mimi in December in Miami, and my close friend Roy McMakin encouraged me to take a long, hard look at it.

SAM hasn’t been known for its contemporary exhibitions, and it hasn’t ever attracted and kept a strong contemporary curator.

That was something I was thinking about, and that I asked tough questions about. I got the sense that there is this potential waiting to be unleashed there. They’re giving a lot of real estate in the new building to modern and contemporary.

I’m definitely interested in doing more classical contemporary art things, but also presenting newer directions and perspectives. They seem to want that, and to be prepared for that. I was very confident that with the new building, the sculpture park, and the enthusiasm of several board members involved in contemporary art that they want it to go that way with regard to generating new shows, and making a bigger push with acquisitions.

Looking at SAM’s exhibition history, are there gaps you want to fill immediately? Projects you have in mind already?

I don’t think it’s about filling gaps; I think it’s about regularity, having a regular presence, keeping modern and contemporary in people’s faces, so to speak. Making the point that this is a big part of the museum’s future.

I haven’t gotten any green lights yet, so I can’t talk about specific ideas. But there will be a gallery that will turn over a couple times a year with younger artists’ work, or not younger artists, but modern and contemporary artists. They identified to me three seasons of special exhibitions each year, and I talked to them about every yearly cycle including one exhibition having something to do with modern and contemporary so that there aren’t long lulls.

How much attention will you pay to artists living in Seattle?

I feel like a real champion of artists, and I learn everything I know from artists, and I think it’s great for a city when you can celebrate your own. I’ll be at the openings. Plus, there are artists who have Seattle roots but have not been shown there much, like Matthew Day Jackson, who now lives in New York but was in Seattle, and still has that Seattle ethos. He has a piece [a life-size covered hay cart draped with state flags called Chariot (The day after the end of days)] in the Whitney Biennial.

What is the Seattle ethos?

Well, he is politically progressive, I think he would consider himself a feminist, and he has an ecological sensibility, an awareness of the land. He’s down-to-earth, not pretentious, not New York. His work might have relevance to the city (of Seattle) but might speak to broader issues.

You’re entering a Seattle more saturated with contemporary art than ever, thanks to the enduring presence of the Henry, new involvement at the Frye, and young spaces such as Western Bridge. Is there such a thing as too much in one city?

I liken it to what’s been happening in L.A. MoCA kind of owned that territory, and then the Hammer came in. Now LACMA is building the Eli Broad Center entirely for contemporary art. It can only enrich the offerings of the city and make it a destination. In Seattle, there’s a built-in camaraderie. I’ve been in touch already today with Liz [Brown] and Robin [Held].

How’s SAM’s contemporary collection?

I was sent a 1,700-page document of all the modern and contemporary holdings. There are amazing holdings in photography, and things that have come in from collectors like the Wrights. We have a pretty good Warhol here at MoCA, but nothing like the Double Elvis at SAM. There’s a great Picabia, a couple de Chiricos. And there are a lot of gifts on their way in honor of the new building. It is a little bit sparser when it comes to the art of the last, maybe, five or 10 years.

SAM has a spectacular Asian collection. Will your work tap into that at all, or do you see the collections as separate?

Well, I’ve got one idea for a show that would definitely break down some of those boundaries, and that could bridge contemporary art with other cultures and other time periods. I can’t talk about it until I pose it to the other curators…

What do you make of the Northwest’s emphasis on craft?

I know, of course, about the tradition of glass up there in Seattle, and I know it also seems to be a town that has privileged painting maybe over other things, especially in collections. It definitely doesn’t bother me, because painting as a discipline and a tradition is something I think about a lot as I watch artists navigate that minefield of what’s been done and what to do. And I’m a sucker for a nice, juicy painting.

Will you get to generate many shows?

That’s how museums get their identity. I’m hoping we can put SAM on the map. I would really hope that we could originate more shows than we take.

Have you ever been an artist?

No, even though I might have tinkered.

How so?

I did some mail art in graduate school, some Fluxus-type art where you send things in the mail and they might get altered in the process. But I don’t have the disposition to be an artist. I don’t like getting messy. I like being a fan.