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Interview with Priya Frank, Associate Director for Community Programs at the Seattle Art Museum

The Seattle Art Museum (commonly known as SAM) in Washington state opened its doors to the public in 1933 with assistance from its then president, Dr. Richard Fuller and his mother, Margaret Fuller, who gave the City of Seattle $250,000 for a museum building. The initial works on view included the Fullers’ collection of Asian art (Chinese jades and ceramics, as well as Japanese, Korean, Indian art, and more). In 1994 the building was rededicated and renamed the Asian Art Museum and SAM moved to downtown Seattle, in their current location. The designated space for Asian art collection allowed for more of the approximately 6,000 Asian art objects to go on display. Today, the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) is temporarily closed for renovation and expansion, and set to reopen sometime in 2019. The new building model for the museum is currently exhibited at SAM.  

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I had the opportunity to film my interview with Priya Frank, Associate Director for Community Programs at SAM for Museum Hue. We discussed her work and the changes occurring in the museums. She showed me the prototype of what the approaches to the didactic wall labels would look like at the newly designed Asian Art Museum. Frank wrote one of the labels, highlighting objects related to health, wellness, prosperity, and a physical manifestation of blessings and good luck as well as how she personally channels strength and luck, through wearing the color red. She shared that her red jumpsuit, MAC red liquid lip, or Revlon red nail polish help to evoke health, wellness, and power when she feels scared or afraid. Durga, one of the most revered goddesses in Hindu mythology, is usually shown wearing a red sari, symbolizing action, destroying evil, and protecting the world from pain and hardship. It is a homage to her own heritage and a reminder to “slay fear and anxiety, and look fabulous while doing so.” Frank incorporates her own authentic connection and voice to the works interpretation. This is not common practice within many museums, which often rely heavily on language and scholarship provided only by curators. This shift of power invites the narratives of others who also share knowledge around the works, dismantling the problematic historical notion that only a selected few have authority over the collections content.

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This is not far flung from Frank’s everyday focus at SAM where she leads programs around exhibitions to create space and experiences that authentically reflects the multiple perspectives represented in Seattle. She is a lifelong Washington resident with strong ties to the city and a keen understanding of its landscape. Through reciprocal, community-centered collaborations and an innovative approach, she works to support pathways for people of color to see themselves represented, respected, and celebrated within the museum. Frank has over 13 years of experience working, participating and investing in Seattle’s arts, cultural, and educational communities. That is why it is fitting that she was named Founding Chair of SAM’s Equity Team, composed of members from several departments at the museum, centering inclusion within the institution’s foundational values, mission, goals, strategic plans, and everyday practices. They assist the museum steer towards the important work of inclusivity and considering equity in all decisions.

Frank is invested in the long term sustainability of people of color in Seattle’s cultural landscape. She and I walked throughout the galleries discussing the significance of stories and aesthetics that foster diversity being intertwined within the museum to improve access to cultural resources for the communities they serve. “In This Imperfect Present Moment,” exhibition - divided into four subject areas: labor, leaders, faith and portraits - showcase 15 celebrated contemporary artists whose vibrant narratives resonate across global boundaries and address layered, complex universal themes in their photographs, paintings, drawings, textiles, and sculpture across a wide array of mediums. We also viewed the museum’s “Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India” exhibition, which focuses on five centuries of the rich artistic traditions of the kingdom of Marwar-Jodhpur. The kingdom of Marwar-Jodhpur in the northwestern state of Rajasthan was established in the 15th century. Highlights of the exhibition include a rare and elaborate 17th-century tent; dozens of intricate Rajput and Mughal era paintings; and an 18th-century carved-wood and glass palanquin, known as the Mahadol, used to transport the maharaja and queens.

These historical and contemporary works bring the experience, presence, and perspectives of people of color to the forefront but Frank knows that an exhibition or two or three is not enough. Recognition of artistic practices and cultural contributions are essential, however without racial equity in all parts of the museum, especially leadership, the institution will continue to fuel contentious one-sided cultural, social, and political accounts that glorifies White, European narratives. The Equity Team not only examines artistic and educational programming, but also visitor experiences, recruiting practices, as well as staff development and career growth opportunities to dismantle racial inequality.

See the video of our conversation and walk through of the galleries.

Text and interview by Stephanie A. Johnson-Cunningham, Co Founder and Creative Director of Museum Hue


Stephanie Cunningham