The new director of Seattle’s Frye Art Museum talks about her vision

Growing up in Missouri, Jamilee Lacy used to travel to Seattle to visit extended family over the summer. With a hometown the size of Fayette, which currently has a population under 3,000, Lacy said she considered Seattle her “first city.” Years later, Lacy is preparing to make Seattle her new home as she takes the reins as executive director of the Frye Art Museum on March 1, succeeding director and CEO Joseph Rosa, who stepped down last year.

Lacy, a first-generation college student, said that it wasn’t until she went to college at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that she even visited an art museum. During her undergraduate work, which earned her degrees in art history and studio art, she studied everything from fashion design to painting, thinking she was going to become a professional artist.

“Then I did an internship at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and realized that curating and organizing, helping artists do cool things, was probably more suited to my personality,” Lacy said.

Lacy went on to receive a master’s degree in comparative art and literature from Northwestern University, where she also worked as a curator of education, before stepping into her most recent role as director and chief curator of Providence College Galleries. Frye board co-president Stuart Williams, who chaired the organization’s search committee, praised Lacy as a “visionary leader” who offers “an impressive combination of big-picture ideas and specific strategies to leverage the museum’s existing strengths into even greater community impact.”

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” Lacy said of joining the Seattle museum, which typically operates with a $4 million to $5 million budget. “When I talked to people about the Frye, especially people locally, people just gush over this museum. They love this museum.”

I spoke with Lacy about her vision for the Frye, challenges facing the museum and what the arts community can expect from the newest voice joining its ranks. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you approaching Seattle and this position that may be different from how you approached previous arts scenes?

I’m really interested in the ways that museums can be better community partners, especially to artists. I think one of the reasons that being a professional artist didn’t pan out for me was because it’s the hardest job in the world. Museums can play a much bigger role in cultivating the cultural viability of cities and partnering with communities and organizations. Seattle is a city where there is so much possibility for conceptual development and access to inspiring interdisciplinary opportunities, but funding and sustainability are huge problems here. And that’s something that I would like to work on as a director, really thinking about how the Frye can continue to deliver its wonderful in-house programs, but also maybe stretch its limbs a little bit to see how artists here can be supported and their livelihoods — that they’re feeling the advantages of being involved in a museum like this.

As a leader of a museum like the Frye, how do you go about forging those new connections with local artists in the Pacific Northwest?

I’m a curator by training. Even though there’s a curatorial staff here who will be continuing their amazing work, I will be getting to know artists specifically by doing studio visits. And I’m also really excited to understand how the Pacific Northwest as a cultural region works, and I think the guide for that will be local artists. Those are the folks who cultivate the network.

What projects or exhibitions from your past would you point to as an example of the work that excites you the most?

In terms of in-house programming, I did a series called “Beyond Bauhaus.” I’m really interested in the way that contemporary artists are using art history, like the history of the Bauhaus school in Germany, to continuously integrate those histories into their practice, but also reevaluate history. Essentially, using an exhibition that allows local artists and international artists to have a dialogue with each other about global history — those are the things that I’m most interested in terms of what happens inside the museum.

But what I really like to spend a lot of time on, and I think perhaps one of the reasons I was selected for this position, is external programming. What I’m most proud of at Providence College Galleries was a program called My HomeCourt. I partnered with Providence College alums, the Providence College basketball team and the mayor’s office to renovate basketball courts throughout the city of Providence and collaborate with local and international artists to do giant all-encompassing works of art that would include a basketball court mural.

We would partner with the community so the artist would be embedded in and learn about the communities. They were usually communities that had suffered quite a bit of divestment, so seeing about the ways that our little museum could leverage the resources and the networks that we have to directly invest into artworks for our city was pretty significant.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing museums in 2023 and beyond?

Existing as an inclusive and safe public space in this ongoing pandemic landscape that we’re all continuing to live in, thinking about how do you get back those audiences or retain your connections to communities who maybe are not yet ready to come to the museum. And that sort of connections, I think, to funding development. Small museums that are so nimble and so cutting edge, like the Frye, the challenge and the opportunity is to seek new revenue sources so that we can continue investing in the avant-garde. We can continue collecting the work of local artists, but also national artists. We can continue fostering partnerships with communities here, figuring out how the work that we do invest in communities near and far. The wonderful thing about the Frye is that the admission is free and the foundation provides quite a bit of the operating budget. But if we want to continue to contribute to the growth of opportunities and cultural vitality in the city of Seattle, then we have to think about expanding our funding and how we can continue to be nimble, but be experimental in the way we think about that .

I’m a big believer that an arts scene, especially a visual arts scene, in a city is only healthy if its museums are buying art from local artists. So figuring out how to do that robustly will be important to me and to the Frye.

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