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Mimi Gates Announces Retirement as Director of the Seattle Art Museum
Mimi Gates. Photo: ©Jennifer Richard

SEATTLE.- Seattle Art Museum (SAM) Director Mimi Gates announced today that she will step aside on July 1, 2009, after fifteen years of visionary leadership. Gates, who joined the museum in 1994, will remain in her position through the end of June 2009 to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership. SAM’s Board of Trustees is in the process of forming a search committee to determine a successor for Gates. In addition, the Trustees announced today that she will be named Director Emeritus upon her departure in honor of her extraordinary accomplishments at SAM.

During the past fourteen years, Gates led the largest art museum in the Northwest through the creation of its Olympic Sculpture Park (opened January 2007) and the recent expansion of its downtown building (completed May 2007). SAM achieved a high level of artistic excellence and unprecedented levels of accessibility; organized major exhibitions of scholarly and critical acclaim; increased its endowment, attendance and membership; diversified its board, staff and audience; created a conservation department and studio; and added more than 6,500 works of art from a wide variety of cultures to its collection , including a commitment of over 1000 works in 2007 in honor of the museum’s 75th anniversary, said to be one of the most important gifts of art to a museum in the history of U.S. philanthropy.

"Mimi has built an extraordinary legacy at the Seattle Art Museum," said Jon Shirley, Chairman of SAM’s Board of Trustees. "Her energy, passion and bold vision have led SAM through a period of unprecedented growth including the successful completion of the Olympic Sculpture Park and the expansion of SAM Downtown, as well as the development of plans for the renovation of her beloved Asian Art Museum. As we look ahead, we have the opportunity to celebrate and build on her incredible achievements that will sustain SAM for generations to come."

"A fifteen-year tenure as director of SAM is just right," Gates said. "The moment is ripe for robust succession, for the appointment of a new director with a fresh vision, and Seattle will attract a person of high caliber. Like me, the new director will have the honor of working with a superb professional staff - talented and hard working - and with a dedicated Board of Trustees. I have derived enormous pleasure from bringing great art to Seattle and giving the broad community ownership of this extraordinary art museum. Now I will embark on a new chapter in my life."

SAM’s successes under Gates’s leadership can be attributed to several key factors, including thoughtful selection and cultivation of keenly talented staff and board members; a strong emphasis on enhancing the museum’s outstanding art collection; an increased focus on advancing knowledge through first-rate exhibitions, publications and programs; a passionate belief in the positive benefits of engagement in the arts, especially for youth; and an unwavering commitment to involve and reflect the community.

"Mimi’s dedication to artistic excellence and her sincere commitment to connect the museum’s cultural offerings to the Northwest’s residents and visitors will be one of her many legacies. I speak for the entire staff when I say what an honor and source of pride it has been to work with Mimi in support of SAM’s remarkable evolution," said Maryann Jordan, Senior Deputy Director. "Mimi’s encouragement, enthusiasm and unwavering commitment to the power of art inspire us to exceed our expectations and perceived limitations."

Following nineteen years at the Yale University Art Gallery, seven and a half of which she spent as director, Gates joined SAM as the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director in May 1994. At that time, the museum’s membership tracked around 23,000 and SAM was one of the least-endowed museums in the nation. Gates set her sights on rebuilding and reinvigorating the institution. Since then, admissions at SAM’s three sites have jumped to more than a million visitors annually. Membership has increased to nearly 40,000 households, the endowment has grown to approximately $113 million and SAM’s most recent capital campaign was the largest cultural capital campaign in the history of the region, generating more than 10,000 gifts from the community.

During Gates’s tenure the museum’s work was acknowledged and supported by numerous competitive grants from renowned national foundations including an unprecedented $1.2 million 4-year grant from the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund in 2000, as well as grants from the J. Paul Getty Trust, Robert Lehman Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Upon the successful completion of SAM’s recent capital campaign (2007) SAM also received a prestigious $2.5 million challenge grant from The Kresge Foundation, the largest grant ever given to an institution in the Northwest.

Gates is also known for forging innovative partnerships to realize museum goals and spur growth. These include collaborations with the Trust for Public Land to build the Olympic Sculpture Park, with Washington Mutual to expand SAM downtown and with the University of Washington and the Thomas and Frances Blakemore Foundation to make the Seattle Asian Art Museum a regional, national and international center for the study and appreciation of Asian art and cultures.

"Mimi has elevated the museum to international stature while remaining connected and dedicated to our local community," said Christine Nicolov, SAM Board President. "The Olympic Sculpture Park and the downtown expansion were incredible opportunities that she seized not only for SAM but for our region. Her bold efforts have established SAM as both a great museum and a dynamic and important civic force."

Olympic Sculpture Park
Gates’s dream of getting art out into the community - making it accessible to all, in a green space that embodies the greatness of the Northwest - was realized when the acclaimed Olympic Sculpture Park opened in January 2007. Beginning in 1997, Gates worked with the Trust for Public Land and generous donors and collectors to formulate the idea of a Seattle Art Museum sculpture park, open and free to all, on the last piece of undeveloped waterfront in downtown Seattle.

When the sculpture park opened in early 2007, it instantly became one of the region’s primary attractions, drawing more than 750,000 people since its opening. Balancing green space, major works of art and spectacular views, the Olympic Sculpture Park has become a new icon for Seattle, winning many prestigious awards for design, landscape architecture, engineering and environmental initiatives.

Downtown Expansion
Beginning in 2001 and working with SAM’s board and staff, Gates oversaw expansion of the museum’s downtown facility which opened in May 2007, guiding the museum through an extremely complex plan to create an expansion in conjunction with Washington Mutual’s (WaMu) adjacent new world headquarters.

While adding significantly to the vitality of downtown Seattle, the expanded museum has the space to accommodate major international exhibitions and to present SAM’s evolving global art collections in all their richness and depth. The first phase of the expansion more than doubled the museum’s exhibition space.

Artistic Excellence and Scholarly Rigor
Believing that a museum’s permanent collection is its heart, Gates championed the expansion of SAM’s collection. Under her guidance the collection was significantly enhanced by important gifts and acquisitions. In 2007, SAM announced an unprecedented series of commitments from prominent museum patrons and collectors. The gifts, which commemorate the museum’s 75th anniversary, represent a wide range of art and include more than 1,000 works from over 60 collections. In a remarkable show of support, eight of the Northwest’s leading collectors have committed their entire collections over time, creating the largest gift in the museum’s history.

Additionally, Gates empowered her curatorial staff to research and originate exhibitions which maximize their expertise in the intersection of cultures and celebrate the museum’s strength in global art. In 1997, former curator Trevor Fairbrother and Deputy Director for Art Chiyo Ishikawa collaborated to build an outstanding, scholarly exhibition and catalogue based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester. Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci’s Legacy of Art and Science attracted 237,000 visitors, established a model for community partnerships that is still followed today and brought the museum international acclaim.

In the summer of 1999, the museum partnered with the Denver Art Museum and the High Museum of Art to co-organize Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums. The exhibition broke attendance records at the downtown museum (316,000 visitors) and encouraged a new generation to visit and join the museum. The successor show, entitled Inspiring Impressionism: The Impressionists and the Art of the Past, opens June 19 of this year.

SAM has also benefitted from Gates’s expertise in the history of Chinese art and Chinese language. Not only did she co-curate Stories of Porcelain: From China to Europe in 2000 and Fragrance of the Past: Chinese Calligraphy and Painting by Ch’ung-ho Chang Frankel and Friends in 2006, but she also worked closely with former curator of Chinese Art Jay Xu to negotiate with the Chinese government for the groundbreaking exhibition Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan, the first-ever SAM-organized show to travel to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Gates worked closely with Ishikawa in 2004 to organize Spain in the Age of Exploration 1492-1819, a successful collaboration between SAM and Spain’s Patrimonio Nacional, which oversees the country’s royal collections. Sixteen Spanish and American museums, including the Museo del Prado, and several private collectors loaned works to tell captivating stories of the Spanish empire. For their work on the exhibition, His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain awarded Gates and Ishikawa the Order of Isabel la Católica, often called the Royal American Order of Isabella the Catholic.

“Mimi has championed an ambitious artistic program at SAM, and has always been a steadfast supporter of the curatorial team,” said Ishikawa. “She is a passionate advocate for the collection and encourages curators to realize their dream projects. Under Mimi’s direction SAM has become known for innovative shows that make scholarly contributions while connecting with the broader public. She has been an inspiring leader.”

Gates also initiated institutional collaborations to bring the world’s greatest works of art to Seattle. Most recently, SAM presented Roman Art from the Louvre, featuring nearly 200 works of superb Roman art beautifully displayed and interpreted to convey the texture of life in ancient Rome. The Rome show, together with an exhibition of three panels from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s marvelous gilt bronze Gates of Paradise, attracted close to 200,000 visitors this spring.

“My passion for art museums derives in part from my view of museums as a history from things, a singular place to be grounded in history and to free our minds to understand today’s global world through the firsthand experience of original works of art,” said Gates.

Conservation also figures prominently among Gates’s accomplishments at SAM. She founded a conservation department, hired professional conservators and created the well-equipped Sally & William Neukom Conservation Studio in 2001. Since that time, SAM has become a regional leader in art conservation, ensuring the care and longevity of its extraordinary collections and exhibitions.

Mimi Gates – Biography
Gates received a bachelor’s degree in history, with honors, from Stanford University, an honors degree in Chinese Language and Culture from L’École Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes in Paris, a master’s degree in Oriental and Chinese Studies from the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D. from Yale University in the History of Art, specializing in the history of Chinese art.

From 1975 to 1994 she was on the staff of the Yale University Art Gallery, in the capacity of Curator of Asian Art (1975-1987) and subsequently as the Henry J. Heinz II Director (1987-1994). She has been president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (national organization of art museum directors), chaired the Federal Indemnity panel (1999-2002) at The National Endowment for the Arts and served as a member of the Advisory Board of the Getty Leadership Institute. Currently she is a fellow of the Yale Corporation and a member of the Governing Board of the Yale University Art Gallery.

In Seattle, she is adjunct faculty in the Department of Art at the University of Washington and serves on the board of directors of the Northwest African American Museum, the Greater Seattle YWCA, the Downtown Seattle Association and Copper Canyon Press, as well as being a member of the Leadership Advisory Board of the Cascade Land Conservancy. She has received numerous awards, including ArtsFund’s Outstanding Achievement in the Arts Award and Yale University’s Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal.

She has one son and, since her marriage to William H. Gates Sr., three step children and eight step grandchildren.

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