News Column

Bellevue Arts Museum director blends business, art appreciation

August 25, 2014

By Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times



Aug. 25--Look at the resumÈ of Linda Pawson, the new executive director of the Bellevue Arts Museum, and you may wonder what elements in her background led her to take a position at an art museum.

She spent 10 years at Microsoft, where her responsibilities included something dubbed the "World Wide Rhythm of the Business Balanced Scorecard" program. Before that, she was with a consulting firm, Accenture, where she specialized in "change and transformation management."

But Pawson -- who is warm and approachable in person, if frighteningly conversant in corporate-speak -- says she was drawn to the arts from the time she was a child growing up in Poulsbo.

"There was always something artistic going on at our house," she explained in an interview at BAM last week. "My mother did silk screening, and my father did woodcarving."

Her parents often took her to museums, and she met art-makers through her family as well. After taking some classes at Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle, she ended up on the school's finance committee and then on its board.

Pawson, 52, was called on to serve as BAM's interim executive director last September after the museum decided to shift from a dual-leadership model (with managing director Larry Wright serving as "co-leader" with director of art, craft and design Stefano Catalani) to one that more strongly distinguished between artistic vision (Catalani's responsibility) and practical logistics (Pawson's).

She and Catalani made a bargain: "Over time we would assess each other and decide if this was going to be the right thing to do. And it turned out it was."

Together, their mission is "to bring the best of art, craft and design to the Northwest," she says. "We want to really make this building not only the physical heart of downtown Bellevue [but] the soul of downtown Bellevue as well."

Pawson, who has also served on BAM's board, acknowledges the museum has some visibility issues. (Note to BAM: Hanging some exhibit banners on the museum's otherwise blank Bellevue Way Northeast streetfront sure would help.).

The museum had a bumpy time in 2003, closing its new Bellevue Way Northeast quarters two and a half years after opening them, amid financial problems coupled with a vague artistic mission that failed to attract visitors. It reopened in 2005 with a new emphasis on crafts and design, featuring work that was often cutting-edge rather than traditional in character.

"We've been here in this building since 2000," Pawson points out, "and yet people walk by us every day and don't know we're here. So we need to get them in the door. Once we get them in the door, they're hooked, because Stefano and his staff do such a great job."

The consistent words they hear from the visitors are "surprising" and "unique."

Given some of the marvelous exhibits BAM has hosted in the last two years, including experimental wood-sculptor Dan Webb's first solo museum show, "Fragile Fortress," and a terrific retrospective of ceramic artist Patti Warashina's career, those reactions make sense.

BAM's venturesome programming is bringing results.

"We are seeing record attendance," Pawson says. "We had 38,000 this time last year, and we're at 51,000 this year."

Pawson's focus is now on developing relationships with Bellevue businesses and its other arts groups to make sure the city has "a healthy and vibrant" arts scene.

"I think it's going to be a pretty exciting ride."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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Source: Seattle Times (WA)


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