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.
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 last Wednesday, art of the last decade is not SAM's strong suit.
It's only fair to note that SAM is not strictly a contemporary art museum. But new art and artists attract 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. 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 SAM gives him the power he wants, because I'd like to see what he would do with it.