José Carlos Diaz, Seattle Art Museum’s new Associate Director of Art, to help shape SAM’s vision for the future

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Looking ahead, the Seattle Art Museum has announced contemporary art specialist José Carlos Diaz as its new Associate Director of Art following an international search. Diaz, who will take up his position in July at an undisclosed date, succeeds Chiyo Ishikawa. Ishikawa retired in 2020 after 30 years at the museum.

As Associate Director, Diaz will oversee the museum’s artistic program and direct eight curators and other staff in exhibitions, collections, publications and libraries at the Downtown Seattle Art Museum, the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park and Olympic Sculpture Park.

Amada Cruz, director and CEO of SAM, said in a statement that Diaz “is a visionary scholar and leader who is brimming with exciting ideas about our artistic programming, including deepening our connections with local artists and communities.”

Born in Miami, Diaz grew up outside of Sacramento, California, into a family of artists. His mother is a photographer and his brother is an indie rock musician. Diaz embarked on a fine arts path, studying art history, criticism and conservation while attending San Francisco State University before receiving his master’s degree in cultural history from the University of Liverpool. After graduating, he wasn’t sure where his path would lead, but he knew he wanted to work in art.

“One of the challenges of studying art history is that no one tells you what to do with an art history degree,” Diaz said, “whether you work as a teacher, in an auction house, in galleries, or as an artist.”

His background is perhaps correspondingly diverse. He was a curatorial intern at the Rubell Museum in Miami before starting a project called the Worm-Hole Laboratory, in which his own apartment served as an incubator space for Miami artists to exhibit their work. After holding various roles at Tate Liverpool and curating exhibitions at The Bass in Miami Beach, Diaz made his way to his final position as chief curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

He eventually turned to curation out of a desire to collaborate with artists to create exhibitions and shows that can enchant people of all ages. As Diaz noted, museums across the country are being challenged by relevance and struggling with the perception that they are either archaic or not for everyone. It’s important to remember that museums, he said, are “living, breathing institutions that need to evolve.”

“SAM is a pivotal arts institution for the City of Seattle,” said Diaz. “It’s an institution that locals should visit frequently.”

Evolving, Diaz noted, includes changes through equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts like rethinking hiring practices and diversifying staff, but it also means rethinking collections and exhibits and listening more closely to what the community wants. This next phase for SAM will draw on Diaz’s areas of expertise in contemporary art, multidisciplinary programs, public art and collaboration with SAM’s curators to reimagine the institution’s collection.

“I’m a total optimist,” Diaz said. “I believe that museums are places where people can find inspiration. I want SAM to inspire the next generation of curators, artists and patrons. This is something that museum curators are debating – we’ve been debating this for years, but it’s more urgent now.”

Having worked at Tate Liverpool, one of Tate’s four art galleries, and the Andy Warhol Museum, one of four Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh, Diaz is thrilled to have the opportunity to oversee SAM’s artistic program and begin designing a new vision and narrative around three locations.

“It gives me an opportunity to really think about how these three sites can work together,” Diaz said. “There are very few cities in the US that have such a multi-site structure, which I find very exciting. I guess I’m a bit greedy because it has something for everyone, but for me it certainly has it all.”

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