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.