WHEN TREVOR FAIRBROTHER leaves his post as deputy director of the Seattle Art Museum in mid-December, it will be with a grand flourish: the opening of a show of 140 works by American expatriate portraitist John Singer Sargent, the first ever in western North America.
Though Sargent painted over a century ago, his work is perfectly tuned to engage the sensibilities of millennial Seattle. He was willing to portray Edwardian England's arrivistes and nouveaux riches as they longed to be seen—not just as wealthy, but, far more important, as confident, established, secure. All our late-won billions in the bank can't buy us the glamour Sargent gave his often desperately ordinary subjects; but thanks to Fairbrother we'll be able to feel it third-hand.
Fairbrother is also responsible for the show on view for just 10 more days in SAM's special exhibition space. It's not nearly as showy as the Sargent is sure to be, but for those more concerned with what's inside the cultural box than the sumptuous satin-wrapped packaging, it probably offers a clearer picture of what SAM and Seattle will be losing with Fairbrother's departure.
SAM is not now and almost certainly never will be a museum that can demand attention and respect merely by putting its holdings on view. It came far too late to the banquet table to secure more than a lucky scrap or two overlooked by older, richer, more ruthless diners. To piece out the imperfections and lacunae in its collections, imagination is required, along with exquisite taste—which can turn modest ingredients into a memorable meal.
In this art, Fairbrother has proved himself extraordinarily gifted. His current show, entitled 2000?, is a brilliant improvisation—pulled together from two small touring shows that happened to become available simultaneously—salted with old SAM holdings, new acquisitions, and a few deft borrowings.
Juxtaposition between pieces is the key to the show's effect, and Fairbrother forces us to pay attention to his juxtapositions by leaving the pieces unlabeled, without even an artist's name to cue your reaction. Some people find this remarkably annoying, but those who are willing to pay attention to the experience offered will quickly notice that the works are oriented as if by a magnetic field—on invisible but palpable lines of time, image, thought.
The show's two anchoring groups exhibit this creative tension well. C.D. Hoy's photographs of Canadian mill workers were taken between 1909 and 1925, but in their combination of compositional artistry and vernacular candor seem absolutely "contemporary." Whitfield Lovell's "installation"—a weather-beaten wood cabin full of homely artifacts of life a hundred years ago, adrift on a pool of faded wash-worn garments—was made just last year but looks back as far as Hoy's portraits look forward.
ONCE ALTERED to the implied timeline of the show, you notice how the human face and figure, solid, central, and taken for granted at the entrance end of the hall, are progressively called into question as you move onward—caricatured, collectivized, once even turned upside-down. At the far end of the gallery, when it's time to turn back toward the entrance, they've evaporated completely, replaced by mere artifactual evidence that they once existed.
Few curators possess the combination of ambition, imagination, and tact required to pull off this kind of show. Even fewer share Fairbrother's love of preaching the gospel of art to the unconverted while refusing to talk down, to worship the mammon of marketing in its benign disguise as "outreach." In addition, Fairbrother has served throughout his SAM tenure not only as curator of modern art but also as deputy director of the institution, with all the administrative chores such a position entails.
SAM has had no single employee combining so many essential talents in the last 30-odd years. That being the case, the biggest question facing the museum administration should not be "How are we going to replace Trevor Fairbrother?" but "Why are we finding it necessary to replace Trevor Fairbrother after less than four years on the job?"
The answer would appear, incredibly, to be: "Because we did not make any attempt to keep him." Fairbrother has gone out of his way to emphasize, talking to the press and others, that he is leaving SAM with no hard feelings. But when pressed for his reasons for departing, he makes it clear that when he first broached the idea of leaving to his superiors, many expressed their disappointment and anger, but few asked the reason for his decision; none inquired what they might do to alter it.
Two reasons may account for this. The first is that those charged with maintaining and enhancing the work of the Seattle Art Museum in the local and national art community do not know what it is that they are losing. The second is that they do not care. The second alternative is not to be contemplated without despair, so we must take what comfort we can from the first. It is a cold comfort, though, because this particular lesson—that the quality of an arts institution is defined by the imagination, intelligence, ambition, and passion of its artistic staff, not by the excellence of its budget, marketing, and press departments— is one we've been taught before.
To see what SAM wants in the way of qualifications for Fairbrother's replacement, see this page of job opportunities on SAM's site.