It’s a truism of the museum world that directors who have overseen a major expansion at their museum tend to step down once that work is done. Sadly that wasn’t true for Anne d’Harnoncourt, who died on Sunday before see could see to completion all the changes she set in motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
But yesterday Mimi Gates, who is 65, proved the rule by announcing that she’ll retire next year as director of the Seattle Art Museum. It was just over a year ago that her museum opened its Brad Cloepfil-designed expansion. And four months before that it inaugurated an off-site sculpture garden that’s one of the most imaginative public spaces in the U.S. — built largely on an off kilter industrial site that did not at first glance say sculpture garden to most people, but she was one.
Gates had put in five years as director of the Yale University Art Gallery when she was lured to a much sleepier SAM in 1992. The place has grown substantially in every metric since then — membership, attendance and gifts. And she did all that without leaning much on her stepson, Bill Gates. (He and his wife did kick in for the amphitheater-style seating area in the new sculpture park.)