Seattle's Sandra Jackson-Dumont makes art a party
The Seattle Art Museum's deputy director for education and public programs, is well-suited for her role. She loves art, and, judging by the ease she displays with Remix patrons, she loves people.
SAM's Summer RemixThe next Remix, will be held 8 p.m. to midnight, Aug. 12, at Olympic Sculpture Park. For more information and tickets go to www.seattleartmuseum.org. Tickets are $20 and sell out quickly.
THE DOORS are about to open at the Seattle Art Museum's quarterly Remix art and music soiree, and the party people are lined up around the corner at First Avenue and Union Street.
When the clock strikes 8, a marching band struts onto the sidewalk playing New Orleans jazz for the crowd; dancers in colorful, rustling outfits made by the artist Nick Cave, whose exhibit of intricately detailed, wearable sculptures, "Meet Me at the Center of the Earth," opened the night before, get ready to perform inside.
The first 50 patrons wearing carnival masks will get free tickets to the sold-out event, so dozens wait eagerly behind creations made of everything from paper, glitter and feathers to flattened soda cans.
It's quite the spectacle, even for downtown Seattle on a busy Friday night.
At the center of the artfully choreographed chaos — its main instigator, in fact — is the museum's deputy director for education and public programs, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, who comes out to personally give away the free tickets and whip up the already frenzied crowd.
Jackson-Dumont, now in her fourth year at SAM, is well-suited for her role. She loves art, and judging by the ease she displays with Remix patrons — she occasionally hikes up her skirt to show off her new Nick Cave-print leggings — loves people.
Remix is like a circuit-party for art lovers, sophisticated enough for urban professionals wearing their downtown finest and edgy enough to attract discerning scenesters in search of the next big thing.
The crowd is straight and gay, young and old, eclectic to a stylish extreme.
One thing is true of all the parties: "You know if you're coming to Remix, it's going to be loud," Jackson-Dumont jokes. Only it's not a joke.
Music and chatter fill the museum on Remix nights, a purposeful attempt to shake up the normally serene art-viewing experience.
At a party this past March, DJ Riz spins club music for dancing crowds underneath the Ford Tauruses that hang like junkyard chandeliers in the downstairs atrium, where bartenders mix arty cocktails with absinthe.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a troupe of drag queens dressed as naughty nuns, give tours in the upstairs galleries. Down a long hallway, craft tables and a recording studio have been set up so visitors can make their own smiley-face masks then stream videos of themselves in the museum. In another area, a model poses for guests sketching at easels.
Remix does a good job of creating a scene, but it also makes an important statement about the potential of traditional museums in the populist Internet Age.
"The whole idea is these objects are not just pretty," Jackson-Dumont says. "There's always some connections you can make."
By connections, she means between art and viewer but also between SAM and the city around it.
Jackson-Dumont and her team envision SAM as not only a repository of cultural artifacts but a community gathering place where culture happens in real time.
She invites local artists, other movers and shakers (and the Sisters) to Remix as tour guides so they can add their own perspectives on the art and discuss its relevance to them.
At the Remix in March, local cellist Paul Rucker took up residence in the Nick Cave gallery and played music inspired by the Chicago-based artist's sculptures, then asked the crowd to guess which piece he was thinking of. Cave himself was on hand to take questions about the exhibit, which runs until today.
Jackson-Dumont's projects spring from the premise that museums don't have to be boring or academic in an off-putting way. The spirit behind Jackson-Dumont's work is as old as potlucks and salons: People need cool mixing places, settings that encourage conversation, unlikely social connections and, she hopes, learning.
"I'm interested in the idea of things you talk about in your kitchen," Jackson-Dumont says. "It's a place where somehow things are less formal. There's a whole other level of acceptability."
She wants to re-create a similarly casual but invigorating vibe at SAM.
JACKSON-DUMONT, 41, is the kind of person who can find inspiration and make connections anywhere, and she's become quite the woman-about-town in the few years since she moved to Seattle from New York City.
She grew up in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, but her mother was from Mississippi. She inherited some of that Southern charm and effusiveness, which helps in a job that requires tireless outreach.
During a single week in March, Jackson-Dumont seemed to pop up all over town, from Seattle Center at a memorial service for victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan to an "invasion" downtown at Pacific Place shopping center by local contemporary dancers performing in Nick Cave Soundsuits to a reception honoring the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at the home of former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice to a cocktail gathering at her own home for visiting Chicago artist Theaster Gates, winner of a Gwendolyn Knight/Jacob Lawrence Fellowship.
Showing up as a guest or participant at events thrown by other organizations, including ones that aren't strictly speaking art-oriented, such as school board meetings, helps her plug into her new home city. But it's also a wise move in her line of work.
Jackson-Dumont has developed close ties with school teachers through programs such as Community of Thinkers, which promotes arts and humanities education in the classroom through partnerships between schools and community groups.
"I love working at an institution where people don't see you coming," Jackson-Dumont says, noting another professional link she's established with Spectrum Dance Theatre artistic director Donald Byrd.
Those dancers wearing the Nick Cave Soundsuits at events this spring? Some of them were from Byrd's troupe.
As Remix demonstrates, her never-let-'em-see-you-coming approach also applies to SAM's own events.
There's a happy mischief behind it all.
At Remix, you never know what's around the next corner. Jackson-Dumont says she's driven by the spark that occurs "when two things interact, when two or three people come together."
"I use a quote from Sandra all the time — 'curating experiences,' " says Isolde Brielmaier, a curator friend of Jackson-Dumont's who specializes in projects that blend high art, pop culture and fashion.
Brielmaier, a Seattle native based in New York, says museums in her adoptive hometown also face the challenge of connecting with their audiences, especially young people, for whom the term "interactive" represents a way of life.
Jackson-Dumont understands what museums need to do to preserve their legitimacy as institutions as well as what they need to do to stay relevant in the regions they serve.
"She's got legitimacy in the community, and at the same time she can sit at the boardroom table and be in perfect harmony with the conversation there," says Amina Dickerson, a retired arts administrator who works with corporate and cultural foundations. "She brings the spirit of the lay scholar together with the skill of an academic."
In conversation, Jackson-Dumont can talk big ideas while using expressions like "amazingly dope" when she's impressed by something, reflecting an ethos that swings happily between street and elite.
THE IDEA FOR Remix stems from a similar event Jackson-Dumont started in 1999 when she worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem called "Uptown Fridays: Music, Cocktails and Culture."
The Studio Museum was already giving Friday-night tours, but few people showed up for them.
"It was me and the security guards and a couple of people in the (museum) store," she says with a laugh.
One day a lightbulb went off: Why not bring the Friday-night action of that legendary neighborhood into the museum?
Jackson-Dumont decided to invite a Latin-jazz band, guest speakers and other well-connected Harlem denizens to one of the Friday events. Seventy-five visitors came, an unlikely blend of beautiful people dressed to the nines and neighborhood types in street attire.
"Folks who would never interact with each other were smashed together," Jackson-Dumont says.
Word of the revamped event spread. Jackson-Dumont, a lover of hip-hop and other DJ music, invited DJs to spin at the events and encouraged them to play records that tied in with the museum's exhibits.
The event was a hit.
Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden, who's worked with Jackson-Dumont both there and at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, calls her a visionary who has expanded the meaning of education and outreach.
Uptown Fridays "wasn't conceived as a party, but as another point of entry into the museum," Golden says. "In many museums, education serves a critical function, but Sandra takes that to a more inspired, engaged place."
"She was not just hands-on — she was heart-on," Golden says.
Jackson-Dumont was so highly regarded that when former SAM director Mimi Gates started a nationwide search for a new outreach and education coordinator, Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman advised Gates to put her at the top of the list.
"He told me, 'You should not hire for this position until you talk to Sandra Jackson-Dumont," says Gates, who at the time was grappling with the odd challenge of bringing art, history and culture — subjects that demand a certain degree of reflection — to a younger generation that thinks at the speed of a tweet.
Gates flew to New York and met with Jackson-Dumont. The two hit it off immediately.
Jackson-Dumont also visited Seattle and reportedly was blown away by SAM's Olympic Sculpture Park on the city's waterfront. The park idea represented true out-of-the-box thinking, a concept that, by all accounts, she lives by.
"I think the traditional view of an art museum is that it's a bit on the stodgy side," Gates says. "That was never true in reality, but that was the perception."
Still, Gates says, museums need to be aggressive about disproving the myth, especially when it comes to persuading younger visitors to become lifelong patrons.
"You've really got to engage them and make it a place they want to be," she says.
Gates says a community should feel a sense of ownership in its museums. Creating a museum that's grounded in the community, while taking visitors to places they never imagined, is a tall order. But SAM's programs show it's possible.
By the time Jackson-Dumont started Remix two years ago, she already had a good sense of what might succeed.
She'd engineer "cultural moments" that would get people excited about SAM. With a grant from the Wallace Foundation, she and her team were able to grow the offerings at each Remix. Now the event takes over the entire museum.
"MUSEUMS OF the future will try riskier things and involve audiences in new ways," says outgoing SAM director Derrick Cartwright.
He believes Jackson-Dumont's work along those lines, including targeting the 18-to-35 age group with Remix, helps ensure the museum's long-term health.
"It's not just a passive, 'just receive the ideas and do what you want with them' approach," Cartwright says. "These are experiences that involve real participation."
Cartwright says SAM, a nonprofit institution that, like many cultural organizations, has been hit hard by the down economy, does "a little bit better than breaking even" on Remix. But he insists that the event's success should be gauged by other measures.
He believes that under Jackson-Dumont's stewardship, the event has made a strong case for SAM and other big arts institutions as key players in the cultural evolution of the city.
"What she's taught me is that we can't think of the museum in a monolithic way," Cartwright says.
"She's got that gift to be able to talk to people where they're at, and it's genuine," he adds. "It's not a high-and-mighty presentation of what a great museum can do."
He says dozens of people purchase SAM memberships at each Remix. The 2,500 or so tickets to the March party sold out more than a week in advance.
"We're bringing in audiences that we've always wanted to come into the museum, even more than we anticipated," Cartwright says.
Equally important, he says, is what visitors take away from Remix and other programs offered at SAM outside of blockbuster shows like the recent Picasso exhibit, which drew 400,000 visitors. Will they be inspired to come back or rave about their learning experiences to their friends?
At a Saturday-morning workshop for teens interested in urban design and architecture called Design Your Hood, Jackson-Dumont and the students listen intently to a presentation by Knight/Lawrence Fellowship winner Gates.
The artist is known for gutting blighted buildings, creating museum pieces with the salvaged materials and converting the reclaimed structures into community halls suitable for poetry readings, musical performances, prayer meetings or whatever the surrounding neighborhoods dream up.
During the workshop, Gates speaks animatedly about transforming "dead architecture," buildings that seem drained of vitality, into spaces that have an "emotional pulse," where people congregate on a regular basis.
SAM is by no means a dying institution, but that latter idea is a big part of Jackson-Dumont's work.
Events like Remix may be aimed at sparking cultural moments, but Jackson-Dumont is smart enough to know that she can't be satisfied unless she can make those moments last.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
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