Joseph Rosa, incoming director of the Frye.
Joseph Rosa, incoming director of the Frye.

Joseph Rosa, the 56-year-old director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, has been hired to run the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. He starts October 1.

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For the last decade, the Frye has been the most consistently interesting of Seattle’s three main art museums, so I called and emailed people from all stages of Rosa's career to get a sense of what he might mean for art here.

“I don’t know what the Frye is, to tell you the honest truth,” Peter Benedek said when he called me back to talk about Rosa. “I’m calling out of my extraordinarily high regard for Joe.”

Benedek is a director and co-founder of United Talent Agency, one of the biggest talent agencies in the world. He’s an art collector and Michigan alum, but he wasn’t involved in the university art museum until Rosa pulled him in. Now Benedek is on the advisory committee.

He says, “If I had to analogize Joe to somebody, I’d say Annie Philbin”—the leader who’s vitalized the reputation of the Hammer Museum in LA. “She’s a charismatic, intelligent, tasteful person who knows how to raise a shitload of money and knows how to get people to pay attention to what she’s doing.”

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker has been director at the Frye since 2009. She’s daring and creative in giving local artists a platform and setting them in the company of international stars. She told me that Rosa is passionate about art and scholarship, like her, and also like her, “a total nerd when it comes to history. We’re both historians as well as curators who are committed to contemporary art.”

“The Frye is a beloved place,” Rosa told me by phone. “What Jo-Anne did… it’s really rare. The role of a director is not about sitting on top of a hill and saying I can do it all. It’s about reaching out to your community, and that’s why I think Jo-Anne and I gravitate to each other.”

He gives the example of Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, and the Underground Museum, the exhibition of paintings and videos by two brothers that recently closed at the Frye. Birnie-Danzker turned over the galleries for that prestigious exhibition to curator Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, a Seattle artist and longtime friend of the brothers who had the idea for it.

Rosa also mentions Seattle artist Inye Wokoma’s current exhibition (his first at a museum), which is paired with a show of 19th-century Danish paintings and a video by leading Chinese artist Xu Bing.

“I think it’s so important for everyone to get out of their comfort zones, to embrace newness, and to discover what that is,” Rosa said. “A board member (in Michigan) said to me, ‘I love Agnes Martin, that’s progressive.’ I said, ‘Yes, you’re 72, and that was progressive for that time, but we should be showing Ryan Trecartin, who does these messy videos,’ and he says, ‘Well, Joe, that’s a hot mess,’ I said, ‘Well, the world is a hot mess.’”

Several people described Rosa as warm and charismatic, but on paper he is formidable.

He’s organized 50 exhibitions and written 17 books, one a biography of “desert modernist” Albert Frey. His career in museum curating began at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1995, extended through stints at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and landed him in the directorship at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, where he’s served since 2010. (In exhibitions he curated at the Carnegie and SFMOMA, he included the iconic Seattle buildings Experience Music Project and the Central Library.)

“We feel pretty lucky to be able to attract him here,” said Doug Adkins, Frye board president. “The pillars (of this job) are curation and administration, and he’s good at both.”

While Rosa's expertise is architecture and design, he said he sees his role as director and CEO of the Frye as separate from the board's real-estate dealings. The Frye is selling the land across the street to a developer who will build two high-rises of market-rate housing, and then the Frye will buy back a small number of those units to rent out for museum revenue.

The six board members of the Frye began the international search for a director in January, and selected Rosa after interviewing six candidates in person. “We felt like he really fit with the museum and our brand personality,” said Mike Doherty, chair of the search committee. The Frye aims to be an environment “of provocative discovery,” he said.

Architecture and design is Rosa’s area of expertise. After studying at Pratt Institute and Columbia University, he worked as an architect at major firms including Gwathmey Siegel and Associates and Peter Eisenman, and eventually went on to head the largest museum department of architecture and design in the country, at the Art Institute. James Cuno, now President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust in LA, hired Rosa at the Art Institute.

“I have the highest regard for him,” Cuno said by phone. “Joe is an immensely gifted professional who will bring to the job experience as a curator and director, charisma as a fundraiser, and vision as a developer of an institutional profile.”

Another of Rosa’s former bosses, SFMOMA director Neal Benezra, sent me an email calling Rosa’s tenure there “wonderful,” adding that he “did a terrific job” in Michigan. “We are thrilled to have him back on the West Coast.”

Rosa has loved Seattle for about 15 years, during which time he’s been visiting, with his wife Louise, and his sons Hugo (17) and Claude (8). (He grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn.) His sister and brother-in-law live here. They are Sarah and Bruce Naftaly, who owned the noted French restaurant in Ballard, Le Gourmand (it closed in 2012). Now, Sarah has the bake shop Amandine in Capitol Hill.

When Rosa was appointed in Michigan, he was one of multiple architecture curators to ascend to a directorship at an American museum. Another was Aaron Betsky, a force in architectural curating and writing who’s since moved on to become dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. “I knew Joe all the way back to when he was an architect,” Betsky said by phone. He called Rosa “a very able administrator with a very lively eye, always looking for those artists and designers who were really pushing.”

Rosa describes what he prizes as “progressive sensibilities.”

The Frye’s 2014 survey of Seattle artist Buster Simpson’s bold career fits into Rosa’s description, and would have been even more at Rosa’s museum since Simpson is a Michigan alum. “Buster’s work is really quite nice, and it would have been nice to have had it,” Rosa told me, explaining that the Frye’s exhibition was organized quickly and that he didn’t know about it in time to consider bringing it. Part of his work at the Frye will be better promotion, he said.

Simpson’s exhibition was organized by Scott Lawrimore, the last curator at the Frye. The position has been open since Lawrimore left. Birnie Danzker said the position has been open only so that the incoming director could make the hire. Does she believe the Frye needs both a full-fledged director and curator? “Yes, I do. I do. Definitely,” Birnie Danzker said.

Rosa said he will start out by working with guest curators, and that he isn’t yet convinced that a deputy director or chief curator will be necessary at the Frye. At the same time, he said, part of the reason he became a director rather than a curator was to cede the ground in the galleries a little, to give opportunities to “younger talent, instead of someone who’s 56 taking all the air out of the room in a show.”

Rosa’s official title is director and CEO of the Frye. Birnie Danzker says she pushed to add the “CEO” part, explaining that it reflects better what she actually did as Frye director, as well as commands the level of respect that should be afforded to a director by non-museum people who sometimes suspect that directors are basically flaky artists.

Asked to comment on Rosa’s hiring, Kimerly Rorschach at Seattle Art Museum and Sylvia Wolf at the Henry Art Gallery both sent enthusiastic messages about past experiences with him. But it’s Birnie Danzker who gave the most specific testimony about the man who will succeed her. (Birnie Danzker is taking a little time off before she finds whatever’s next for her.)

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She told me the story of working with Rosa on the exhibition Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930, which traveled to the Frye in 2014.

When Birnie Danzker read the translated essay contributed by the expert on Qi Baishi, she felt that something was wrong. Rosa’s museum, and the Noguchi Museum, were organizing the show officially, not the Frye. But Birnie Danzker told Rosa what she wanted to do before the catalog went to the press: fly to China in a hurry with a notebook and a new translator to get it right. He shared her urgency.

“That’s the level of detail that he brings—in other words, an inadequate translation was not going to be good enough,” she said. “He was excited and pleased that we were in this much deeper level of engagement with the [Chinese] scholar and with the knowledge itself. Other people might be bored by our conversations, but… we can hang out with each other in a corner, which we do. It’s about ideas and work.”