Last night, during the intimate party celebrating Beth Sellars at the home of Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom, artist Anne Focke used the term “incremental heroism” to describe Sellars’ career in the arts. Focke earned wide admiration through her early efforts to bolster support for the arts state wide, laying the foundation for organizations to come, including the stalwart Artist Trust. She is now the namesake of the biennial Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award (AFALA).
Beyond congratulating Sellars, we’d like to reflect on precisely why Sellars deserved this award and how her example may inspire others.
The timing is absolutely right. In 1998, Beth Sellars co-founded Suyama Space, one of Belltown’s most cherished art venues. Its final installation, Generativity by Fernanda D’Agostino, closed last month. That gorgeous, generous, layered work was a fitting capstone to 19 years of large-scale installations that challenged artists and audiences. Sellars was the curator and steward of those projects.
The farewell party for Suyama Space was this past Saturday, and it was clear during the speeches just how essential and formative it had been in countless lives. From featured artists to installers working in the background, the ability to work on large-scale projects brought new opportunities, professional, intellectual and philosophical growth.
The legacy of Suyama Space will exist not just in archives, or the documentary book that Sellars is now compiling. Nor is its legacy simply the prestige that artists acquired by showing there. Similarly, though Sellars brought years of curatorial experience to Suyama Space from its inception, it is not merely her expertise that made her the right choice for this award. What is perhaps most crucial at this time is how Sellars models true leadership in the community.
Sellars has led by example with ingenuity and advocacy, beginning with her time curating the City of Seattle’s mobile art collection. It was at her tenacious urging that George Suyama opened the space for her to curate, and when he saw what she could do with it, he committed it to large-scale arts projects, until the building was sold in 2015.
Speaking with Focke and Sellars at the party last night, I mentioned that though the installations at Suyama Space were individually grand gestures, they were enabled by the quieter, less visible work of Sellars herself. Though invisible to the crowd, her work as advocate and curator created ripples that inspired countless others. Focke expounded on this and her original point, saying that by having the boldness to push for the Suyama Space project from the start, Sellars created opportunities for artists to take risks of their own. Her boldness became the platform for others’ boldness, hence the idea of incremental heroism—a persistent vision that remains open to new ideas, and therefore new challenges and risks.
Sellars’ work fits that criterion to a tee. She freely admits that she would push, push, push artists to meet deadlines and thoroughly develop their concepts, to the point that she developed a reputation for nagging. Yet, she did not impose a single curatorial view. This is clear when one looks over the catalogue and how diverse Suyama Space’s 55 site-specific shows were in their content.
Seattle needs more arts venues, certainly, but no matter where one goes, the arts need more leaders like Sellars. One can create the most gorgeous, tony exhibition space in town, but if you don’t have wise and humble leadership that allows artists to experiment and expand, the opportunity will be squandered. Galleries and institutions may help artists edit their work, but if they begin to control the narrative, everything will eventually look the same.
The primary ingredient to the success of Suyama Space was not its beautiful, unique architecture or its location in Belltown. These made it more accessible and photogenic. However, it was Sellars’ leadership that made it what it was, and so difficult to replicate. The award is a nice affirmation for Sellars, but it is also an affirmation of what the arts community should value. One can hope that those observing will take her example to heart. We may not get another Suyama Space, but as long as people work in a similar spirit—incremental heroism, to borrow a phrase—we’ll never lack for art.
Featured image: SWAE Photography, courtesy of Suyama Space