"I only really rock with Jo-Anne," Grammy-winning hiphop artist Ishmael Butler told me this past spring, and his comment stuck, because Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, an older white Australian woman, had to earn his respect and loyalty.
She did it in the way that she ran the Frye Art Museum.
She handed over power to artists like Butler (of Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces), not treating them like they were commodities to be packaged and presented but allowing them to organize their own programs.
Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, Nicholas Galanin, and Nep Sidhu created their own discussions for their exhibition Your Feast Has Ended, and Birnie Danzker told me she was their student. The "feast" in question was the feast that white colonizers have been enjoying for centuries.
The height of her success was a show she didn't even curate (Alley-Barnes did), but it wouldn't have happened without her. This April, the Frye opened the large exhibition Young Blood: Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph, The Underground Museum, the first museum survey of the extraordinary paintings and films of two brothers who grew up in Seattle.
That same week, Beyoncé released Lemonade, and when Kahlil Joseph was revealed to be its filmic muse and codirector, audiences of all ages and races flocked to see the Frye's exhibition that by then every museum in Seattle wished it had.
After seven years spent finishing the transformation of the Frye into the city's most relevant museum—the one that other museums are now copying—Birnie Danzker is leaving.
Why Aren't Museums Like This?
"Do you have your ID?"
The Homeland Security guards check my ID and Birnie Danzker's. We meet at the Seattle compound of the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to walk, talk, and look at the permanent outdoor art installed there, the most famous of which inspired the name of the Seattle grunge band Soundgarden.
It's a sunny day. Birnie Danzker looks more glowing than I've seen her since she arrived at the Frye. We sit dangling our legs off a pier transformed into a permanent work of art by George Trakas. She looks out on Lake Washington and speaks passionately about how grateful she is for the patience and wisdom of Alley-Barnes, Butler, Galanin, Sidhu, and other Black, Latino, and indigenous artists like Inye Wokoma, C. Davida Ingram, and Rodrigo Valenzuela, all of whom had been essentially ignored by Seattle's other two art museums.
"During my time at the Frye, and really since September 11, I had to realize that all my assumptions about how to do my work, and about cultural institutions, were wrong," Birnie Danzker says. "It is collective work. We have a responsibility to do collective work."
Stranded and wandering the streets of lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, Birnie Danzker stopped in at a church that was handing out water and inviting everybody in, regardless of religion. "Why aren't museums like this?" she asked herself.
At the Frye, Birnie Danzker wanted to lead from behind, offering support rather than acting the expert. She demonstrated her intentions gradually, starting in 2012, when she cocurated the permanent collection with a 90-year-old museum regular who, despite having fled Nazi Germany, loved the Frye's gilt-framed German paintings and claimed them as her own heritage. Frieda Sondland's "personal wall labels were much better than my fuddy-duddy ones," Birnie Danzker says. (I never found Birnie Danzker's labels fuddy-duddy, but she did show an occasional weakness for sweeping historical comparisons.)
For Moment Magnitude, a major multi-medium exhibition in 2012, she was just one in a curatorial collective. Three years later, she turned the museum over to artists she didn't even choose. Genius / 21 Century / Seattle featured every artist, writer, filmmaker, musician, and performer to win a Stranger Genius Award in the prize's 13 years. Winners are selected by the vote of a large community of local artists and writers.
Using money she had found in an untapped resource, the Raynier Institute & Foundation (which will continue to fund artists at the Frye for the next two years), Birnie Danzker commissioned new work for Genius, a show intended to "make real a museum that not only exhibits art, but also supports its production."
No Income Whatsoever
Birnie Danzker's final exhibition is To: Seattle | Subject: Personal, which opens October 1. It features pieces the Frye has acquired during her tenure. She says it is not intended as a reflection of her alone. It's important to note the contributions of the former curators Robin Held, who inaugurated the Frye's uniquely close relationship with local artists in all mediums including performance, and Scott Lawrimore, who filled an important chapter in local and national history with a survey of Seattle-based eco-art pioneer Buster Simpson, another influential artist who'd been absent from museums.
It's also important to note that, after Lawrimore's departure, Birnie Danzker did something that could have been disastrous but, so far, hasn't been: She functionally abolished the role of a stand-alone staff curator and rerouted resources and power directly to artists. Could Birnie Danzker have sustained the dual roles, and will that model go wrong under future directors? (New director Joseph Rosa told me he will not immediately hire a curator.)
For To: Seattle | Subject: Personal, multiple pieces will be on display by Valenzuela, whose photography, videos, and installations center on day laborers and housekeepers, as well as the history of labor organizing. (Valenzuela was a day laborer when he arrived in the United States.)
Birnie Danzker gave Valenzuela a full museum exhibition in 2015, commissioning a film. Work from that show is now also owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Microsoft Collection. At the Frye, Valenzuela premiered a stunning movie featuring the workers cleaning up a huge stadium after a football game.
"She is the only curator working in town in a big institution that wants to sit down and talk about ideas and art," Valenzuela said. "Everyone else seems to be interested in eating and drinking with rich people."
The Frye is the only museum in Seattle that has always had free admission, which makes it a place that all people can visit regularly, not just on a special occasion. "In this election season, it's clear to see that people are convinced that the world is built to serve a select few. We are in a dangerous place because of that," Birnie Danzker says.
During her tenure, the Frye's board of trustees decided to sell the parking lot across the street from the museum—where parking, too, was famously free for museumgoers—to a private developer creating a market-rate, high-rise residential complex. Activists have urged the Frye to use whatever leverage it has to push the developer to do more than the legal minimum on affordable housing. I have, too.
So during our walk, I ask Birnie Danzker to take a stand, thinking of her vision of the Frye as a friend to marginalized communities, but she says the conversation is premature and she defers to the museum's trustees.
She says firmly that the project is a matter of the museum's life and death.
From the Frye's opening in 1952, it survived on income from investments. But rates of return plummeted, she says, and the parking lot was "the last property the Frye owned that was literally generating no income whatsoever." Birnie Danzker backed the property sale and also created the museum's first development department, to compete for grants.
Birnie Danzker estimates that the Frye's exhibitions and programs each year cost between $400,000 to $500,000, "which sounds like a lot of money, but it's not compared to other institutions. And it's hard for people because we look so affluent. I have a colleague—I will not say the name of the colleague or the institution—but somebody who has gone to great lengths to make their institution look really dreadful because they're in a huge fundraising campaign. They've done it brilliantly. But I don't want to do that."
Ambition for Creation
Toward the end of our walk, Birnie Danzker and I find ourselves alone at another terrific installation, this one a funny and smart outdoor living room made of stone and bushes by Scott Burton.
Far too few people in Seattle know about the NOAA art. So much in Seattle art is under the radar, I say.
"Yes!" she exclaims. "It wasn't by default that I came to Seattle. I used to say that artistic production here is exceptional, and people got tired of hearing me say that. But I look back, and there is not a single artist I regret turning over the Frye's major galleries to over the years, not a single one."
"Artists have not been supported here. You can't just give them a corner in a museum or put together one show. You have to give over the major galleries in the museum and do it consistently. Giving an artist the biggest gallery and telling them, 'Okay, your work is going to be here for three months, and all kinds of people are going to come in and see it, including other artists,' that sparks a kind of ambition for creation that you don't see if you just give an artist a corner."
We walk for two hours, and I record the interview in parts, pausing when we take breaks. Later I will discover that half the interview is lost, gone except for my memory of it. I consider that soon this is exactly how I will miss Birnie Danzker. I'm being forced to practice remembering what it was like to have her right here.