“Congratulations,” I told Richard Andrews this afternoon when I learned he was planning to leave his job in February.
“Thanks,” he said after a short pause, seemingly never at a loss for civil words even when the comment he’s responding to is slightly … off. “I mean, a couple of other people have said the same thing to me, and I guess that’s the right thing to say.”
“Yes, right,” I said. “I didn’t know quite what to say, actually. I guess it’s a good thing. You’re getting a break, and it has been quite a while, after all.”
“Well put,” he said, laughing now at my awkward attempts, thankfully, instead of taking offense.
I do mean them kindly. Andrews is the man who has been in charge of the Henry Art Gallery’s emergence as an innovative force in art in the Pacific Northwest—at times, it has seemed, the only institutional force for innovation in this city—and the only real contemporary art museum in the Pacific Northwest. The Henry’s trustees will do a national search for his replacement.
He says he’s leaving for personal and professional reasons. Personally, after 32 years in the workforce—leading a nationally acclaimed public art program in Seattle, then going to D.C. to head up the visual arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts (when it still existed), and then running the Henry for almost 20 years—he says he could use a break. As for his involvement with the Henry, he takes quite a selfless position.
“This was an unbelievably difficult decision because I am not at all short on interest, optimism and enthusiasm for the Henry,” he said in a phone interview just now. “But on the professional or institutional level I also believe that—particularly for a contemporary art institution—that an influx of new ideas that a shift in leadership can provide is a good and healthy thing. You don’t ever want to be hanging on so long that you become an impediment to innovation.”
It would be difficult to imagine Andrews as an impediment to innovation, considering his long record of it, from co-organizing the first Russian Constructivist show after the dissolution of the Soviet Union with the Walker Art Center to inviting Ann Hamilton’s installation of yellow canaries and rooms whose walls and floors were covered in smudge marks from burning candles to this year’s installations by Maya Lin. (I didn’t like Lin’s works, sure, but I love Andrews’s record and longstanding philosophy that the most important work a museum can do is to help artists realize new artworks.)
Andrews, 57, and his wife, artist Colleen Chartier, are staying in Seattle. “Who knows what I’ll do? Maybe become a zen monk. I don’t know. Seems less likely,” he said, in his characteristic way of throwing out something mildly surprising, and then responding to it almost academically.
Andrews recently became the president of the board of trustees for the foundation in charge of assisting James Turrell with his masterwork in the middle of the Arizona desert, Roden Crater. Turrell is turning the crater into a series of celestial observatories and art experiences, and has been working on the project more than 30 years—about as long as Andrews has been helping other artists get their work done. Andrews was an artist himself, a sculptor who earned his MFA at the University of Washington. He stopped making art while he was in D.C., when he had plenty else to do, including traveling for work and trying to be a good father for his young family.
Andrews really has been a force for other artists, including Turrell. The Henry commissioned a Turrell skyspace in 2002. Now, Turrell’s big project—which still needs well over $25 million to be completed, Andrews said—is in good hands.
Andrews describes Ann Hamilton’s installation experience as the ideal relationship between a museum and an artist. When she was high up in one of the museum’s skylights preparing her show (all the artificial lights were turned off for the duration of the show), she kept looking down and telling Andrews, “Richard, I can’t believe you’re letting me do this.”
Since Andrews’s arrival, the Henry has grown from a staff of 5 or 6 to more than 40. The operating budget has ramped up from under $300,000 a year to $3.4 million, and the endowment has raised from $100,000 to $10 million—plus the Henry has quadrupled in physical size, with the addition in 1997 of the expanded facility designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, in conjunction with LMN Architects.
Before he arrived, the mixed-repertory museum even flirted, in a series of late-19th century exhibitions, with becoming an American art museum. Andrews steered the museum toward contemporary work, and toward viewing historical work, such as the Russian Constructivism of the early 20th century, in a contemporary light.
“I hope one of the hallmarks of both my tenure here and what the Henry is, is this commitment to risk-taking and this commitment to commissioning art from artists,” he said.
I love his description of the museum’s sometimes-overlooked role as a university presence: “Part of our mission is to be a museum of closest approach to young people when their minds are opening up. What I hope for is that they would open the door to the Henry and. like an explorer, come in and find new vistas.”
At its best, that’s what the Richard Andrews Henry did for people of all ages.