On Monday, after an eight-month search, Seattle Art Museum announced its new director and CEO: Amada Cruz, coming to Seattle from the Phoenix Art Museum (PAM), which she has led since 2015.
And she is very excited.
“I feel like I have been given a gift. Seattle is a thriving, young, innovative city looking toward the future. It has three sites — the downtown museum, the incredible sculpture park, the Asian art museum,” Cruz said. “And Seattle has some of the best private collections in the country. There’s nothing to not be excited about.”
Cruz, who will start this fall (SAM has not yet set a formal handoff date), succeeds Kimerly Rorschach, who announced last fall that she would retire this year after seven years at SAM.
Cruz will walk into a museum with those three high-profile sites, no looming capital campaigns and no massive financial holes to patch. She’ll head an organization with more than 300 employees that has been in the black for the past five years, with $27.8 million in revenue for fiscal year 2018.
SAM’s membership has averaged roughly 36,000 households in the past five years. This fiscal year (starting July 1, 2018) the museum’s two open locations (the sculpture park and the downtown museum) have brought in nearly 710,000 visitors, according to SAM — and it’s looking forward to the opening this fall of its renovated and expanded Asian art museum in Volunteer Park.
“In terms of coming in as a director, she’s picked a pretty good time,” said SAM board member Charlie Wright, who led the search committee. “Looking forward, the emphasis should be on programming and audience development. We’ve got no structural deficit of any kind — in fact, we plan to add $60 million to the endowment. So when she starts, she’ll have some dry powder.”
Wright praised Cruz’s breadth of experience: working directly with artists at Artpace (a residency program in San Antonio) and United States Artists (a Ford and Rockefeller Foundation initiative that awards $50,000 grants to 50 artists each year), curating at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and serving as a museum director. “That’s a range unlike anything we’ve seen before at Seattle Art Museum,” Wright said. “It energizes me and I think it energizes the committee as well.” In its announcement of Cruz’s appointment, SAM also cited her work increasing the diversity of the programming and of the artists (Kehinde Wiley, Valeska Soares, Sheila Pepe, others) whose works were presented at PAM.
So what does Cruz want to build at SAM?
“I have an idea, but expect my vision will evolve as I become familiar with the city and the organization,” she said. “Generally, I think museums have to reconcile the local and the global. What does it mean to be the Seattle Art Museum? How can you produce ‘content,’ to use a tech term, that will give your museum relevance and life — but be visible … nationally?”
On her list: bolstering the newly renovated Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park (“SAAM should be the best Asian art museum in the country”), integrating new technology into exhibition design (“it’s just awkward — nobody’s really figured that out yet”), and helping curators make their dreams come true instead of stuffing her specialty in contemporary art down their throats (“a friend of mine in the museum world once told me: ‘We really work for the staff’ ”).
Cruz’s recent background isn’t all sunshine and roses. A series of news stories from Phoenix detailed significant staff and volunteer turnover during her years at PAM, with headlines ranging from its daily paper’s milquetoast ambivalence (“Phoenix Art Museum: Hirings, firings and a new vision”) to its weekly paper’s outright alarm (“Nightmare at the Phoenix Art Museum: Docents Are Fleeing, Donors Drying Up”).
“Naturally, that gave the search committee some pause,” Wright said. “But we called people, checked in with the board chair, did some due diligence. I would say she was brought on there to affect change, she did it and some people didn’t like it. I guess I’m comforted by the fact that as a leader she’s comfortable with change.”
Sue Pepin, former president and CEO of the Virginia Piper Trust (a major foundation in Arizona that funds health care, education, and arts and culture), said PAM posed a particular challenge for any newcomer. “Its past director had been there for over 30 years, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but Phoenix is blossoming and the museum didn’t reflect Phoenix,” she said. Cruz, for example, who was the first woman and Latina to serve as director and CEO at PAM, started a bilingual initiative, making wall text and a new website (soon to be launched) fully accessible in Spanish, and started clearing out some status-quo brush.
“She just wasn’t going to go with: ‘We’ve done it this way for 30 years, 40 years,’ ” Pepin said. “She was very strong through the criticism — she has a really important backbone and was not going to allow anything but the highest standard of inclusiveness and diversity.”
Whatever Cruz’s public criticism in Phoenix, her work seems to have paid off. Cruz said the museum has paid off $5 million in debt since she arrived in 2015, while PAM membership is up by 20 percent in the past year, or 1,500 additional households — the highest increase in a decade. And attendance went up during her tenure, PAM said earlier this year.
In any case, Cruz said, her work at PAM does not prefigure what she hopes to bring to SAM: “I’m not being brought in to make big changes — it’s not what this museum needs. I’m here to honor its legacy and build on this wonderful foundation.”