Midge Bowman is no "art museum clone"

Midge Bowman is a former teacher, an administrator and is an engaged intellectual with little patience for jargon.

She is also a former dancer and musician who not only knows what it means to teach art but to make it. Bowman, a native Seattlelite who has moved in the rarified art and academic circles of both coasts, takes life with a down-to-earth, democratic approach.

"I've never been satisfied with somebody's version of reality," she said. "It can't be second hand."

Bowman, the new Executive Director of the Frye Art Museum, which she refers to as a "best kept secret," plans to take the First Hill museum in new directions. The Frye is the legacy of Charles and Emma Frye of the Seattle meatpacking fortune. Its doors opened in 1952 with a commitment to showing representational art.

Bowman sees the Frye "as a community gathering place, a lively, welcoming place. A museum is a real life center," she said.

Admission to the Frye, thanks to Charles and Emma and their foundation, is free.

When the Frye reopened in 1997 after extensive renovation, a new era for the museum began. Gone were the bad lighting and a venerable atmosphere that felt like an extension of the old Frederick & Nelson tearoom.

Under Richard West the museum attracted first-rate exhibits, which included Fairfield Porter, Bo Bartlett and landscapes from the Hudson School.

Following West's departure 18 months ago things drifted a bit. Museum memberships fell from 3,000 to about 1,700. Staff turnover has been a factor. The Frye's four-person board of directors asked Bowman to step in as interim director last March. Bowman, who had her own consulting business to non-profits, accepted.

"I've been blessed and cursed with boundless energy," Bowman said. "I came here and felt instantly at home."

Bowman quickly set numerous ideas in motion.

The board found Bowman too good to resist and announced her appointment as executive director late last month.

Bowman, with her private-school background, feels a special obligation to reach out to the public schools.

And she just wants all of us to really look at art, to see and feel it on its own terms.

"If you can spend 20 minutes with a piece of music," she said, "you should be able to spend that much time looking at a painting."

After Yale,

back to Seattle

Bowman comes from a third-generation Seattle family. She grew up south of Georgetown and remembers a place of apple orchards and chicken farms. She studied the arts, French and Latin at the Bush School. She graduated from there after World War II.

"I thought I was going to be a dancer or musician," Bowman said of those high school years.

If Seattle was considered provincial in those post-War years, it's also true that an intense cultural life thrived here. Many of the artists asscociated with the Northwest School were in town doing their work. The weekly Argus, with Maxine Cushing Gray s resident critic, mattered to people who paid attention to the arts.

Bowman soaked in the city's creative juices flowing above and below the surface. She even got to see Rachmaninoff play at the Moore Theatre.

A scholarship took her to Pomona College in California to study music history, where a teacher informed Bowman her hands were too small to play professional piano. While at Pomona, Bowman met and married her husband David.

He enrolled at Yale Law School and she earned her masters at Yale in music history. Looking back, Bowman considers not getting her doctorate a good thing.

"If I'd finished, I'd be languishing in some college now," she laughed.

When the Bowmans returned to Seattle she went to work teaching at Bush School. Bowman noticed some changes at her alma mater.

"Parents were clients and customers, not partners," Bowman said. "It broke my heart."

Bowman experienced first hand the sense of entitlement wealth can bring.

"I had parents threaten to sue because their child had a B-plus instead of an A-minus," she recalled. "The hubris of that."

In the 1980s Bowman ran an international school for girls in Pasadena, Calif. During that time she continued writing articles on education and the arts and concluded, "The only way art can be taught is by apprenticeship."

Going straight to the object itself, without mediation, is Bowman's approach to teaching and to life.

"The initial impression comes from between the eye and the object," she said of art appreciation. "There's something sacred."

A softer gaze

"I've been accused of making bold moves," Bowman said of her young tenure at the Frye. "I am not a museum clone. What I bring is a beginner's mind."

Indeed, she suspended the museum's educational department and formed a research group to look into how the museum's educational resources could be better deployed.

The Frye operates with an annual budget of $2.7-$3.3 million. The foundation has a $10 million endowment and $45 million in landed holdings. The museum attracts about 100,000 visitors a year.

"We function with a miniscule staff," Bowman said.

Bowman has selected Robin Held, associate curator at the Henry Art Gallery, as the Frye's new curator of exhibitions, itself a bold move. Held crosses the street from the Henry's more abstract universe to the Frye's representational world.

This doesn't mean the Frye's mission will change. Charles and Emma Frye, who obviously didn't want to roll over in their graves, made stipulations about the representational art mission in their legacy. It does mean, however, perhaps a more intense public conversation about the nature of representational art, which doesn't equate with conservative or safe, as anyone who took in last year's Bo Bartlett exhibition will grasp.

In the meantime, Bowman's doesn't let go of the younger set.

"I want to teach them a reverence for looking," she said. "They don't have to do anything. They just have to be there. It's a message that's the opposite of our society's."

Bowman, for all of her accomplishments, her sharp intellect and energetic ways, still wants kids "to look at the world with a softer gaze."

It is in art, she says, that we locate "that sense of beauty and wholeness you'll not find in a 7-11 or Walmart."

The Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Avenue.

Eloquent Vistas: The Art of 19th Century American Landscape Photography runs through Oct. 24. Coming Sept. 24: From Lake Union to the Louvre, the Art of Paul Morgan Gustin.

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