Photo: Eunah Song

Priya Frank

Priya Frank Photo: Zabiullah Fazly

Seattle Art Museum (SAM) recently appointed Priya Frank as Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, a newly created position on the museum’s executive team. Having been the Associate Director of Community Programs in the Education department and the founding chair of the staff-led Equity Team since 2016, Priya steps into her new role as an extension of her ongoing work at SAM to integrate racial equity with the museum’s strategic priorities.

Tell us about your background and some of the roles you held prior to joining SAM in 2016.

My path towards racial equity work began at Nathan Hale High School, in Ms. Burnett’s history class. Her teaching centered the Civil Rights movement and from then I wanted to do something that forced me to be brave and made an impact. My time there inspired my desire to create space where more people felt seen and valued. This led to my degrees in American Ethnic Studies/Communications, first at Shoreline Community College, then at UW Seattle, and later the Master of Arts in Cultural Studies Program at UW Bothell. To this day, that want to create space for people to be themselves continues to be the heart of the work that I do.

My passion translated into a fundraising career at the University of Washington: first at Meany Hall for the Performing Arts, then the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, and finally at UW Bothell. That work involved cultivating relationships, securing funds, planning events, doing social media, etc. There I learned and grew from the life lessons, from the people who supported me, and from the ability to navigate different arenas that allowed me to be creative, learn about myself, and figure out my sweet spot: authentic relationship building.

What have been some of your biggest accomplishments or proudest moments since joining SAM and leading the Equity Team?

  • The Emerging Arts Leader Internship Program: This paid internship program is designed for folx who are underrepresented in the museum field. It combines focused projects and professional and personal mentorship with networking and connection building. We have 11 alumni thus far!
  • The Equity Team: This team is AMAZING and has done so much to shift culture internally at SAM over the last five years to get us to the place we are now – and we still feel there’s so much more to be done!
  • When our former Director & CEO Kim Rorschach retired last year, the board and her friends created the Kimerly Rorschach Fund for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. It was a true testament to Kim’s dedication to this work and a reflection of the investment of this work long term.
  • This summer, I collaborated with artist Kimisha Turner, who painted a powerful BLM- centered mural outside SAM. Back in 2012, I curated an exhibition for her at LUCID Lounge, so it was truly a full circle moment. The mural now hangs indoors in the SAM lobby for everyone that enters to experience and for Kimisha and I, it’s a beautiful reminder of our journey together.

When you spoke on our Uncharted: Seattle podcast last year, you talked about the type of message it sends when organizations like SAM create positions focused around equity. What does it mean to be part of an organization that’s invested in these efforts?

In doing the research, we found only two other museums in the US that have a director level position like this, so to get to help lead this type of work not only for SAM, but to model the way nationally fills me with hope that we can build out structures and plans to collectively move this work along within the museum field as a whole. It is certainly needed! I hope this type of investment can encourage more museums to incorporate this kind of leadership role as a necessity, not as an add-on. The prioritization of this work was what attracted me to SAM initially and the support I have received over the years has been uplifting both professionally and personally. It has allowed me to grow in this work, to take risks, and show up as my full and authentic self while doing it. I have been able to use my background in fundraising, relationship building, art curation, and community partnership work to build out unique programs, collaborations, and opportunities for visibility and I look forward to doing that more within my new role while working closely with our CEO & Director, Amada Cruz, and the board.

Listen to Priya’s podcast episode of Uncharted: Seattle.

As someone born and raised in Seattle, a city known for celebrating the arts, how has this city influenced your journey to create more equity in the arts community?

It’s the people in it who have influenced my journey through their examples of what it means to do authentic community building work. I have worked in in arts administration for 15+ years, and I have seen what it means to use art as a vessel of bringing people together in spaces that can create change and build community. To be seen is to be valued in all the ways that you come, without having to leave parts of yourself at the door. People such as Elisheba Johnson, David Pierre Louis, and the late and beloved Rahwa Habte made this happen in Seattle. Their leadership created spaces for artists, collaborators, musicians, techies, foodies, and so many others to find a home, one that centered BIPOC communities. They have heavily influenced how I do my work, why I do it, and why I continue to find hope and joy within it.

What are you looking forward to most in your new role as Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (DEDI)?

I’m excited to be a connecter and convener of all the various equity related initiatives happening at SAM, both internally and externally. It’s everyone’s job to push this work forward, but for me to get to be in the middle of it all – helping to steer and communicate that work out – and to collaborate with leadership to assess what their needs are and help build out strategies for how they can center anti-racism within their individual departments is truly exciting. I’m in a unique position where I get to focus on this work full time now and the opportunities feel endless! I’m inspired that department heads are approaching me, eager to work together and see how they can continue to create culture shift from where they are. I am also looking forward to exploring with my colleagues what it means to be committed to anti-racist work – the investment in starting with the self, centering vulnerability, and having courageous conversations (while recognizing discomfort) is part of what effective leadership is and I’m excited to explore how that can be nurtured at SAM. We must collectively bring everyone along in order to be most effective and keep this work going long term.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Are there people or organizations in the Seattle art community that are doing forward-thinking or innovative things?

SO MANY!!! HOW DO I CHOOSE!!?? Here are a few:

  • Vivid Matter Collective: This collective is made up of the 16 artists who created the Black Lives Matter street mural in Capitol Hill. The collective includes founder Takiyah Ward, Kimisha Turner and Aramis Hamer.
  • Resistencia: This café/arts and cultural space in South Park has been working overtime during COVID as a community building space, even while distancing. Their pop ups, art, food pantry at times, merchandise, and performance space always leave you feeling included, cared for, stylish and caffeinated!
  • Spectrum Dance Theater: Hologram dancer in your living room….need I say more??!
  • The many muralists and graffiti artists who have kept this city filled with life via art over the past 6 months and inspired my own work as a newfound chalk art muralist!
  • Estelita’s Library: this is a curated community bookstore and library focused specifically on social justice, ethnic studies, and liberation movements. Going in is like going back to my American Ethnic Studies courses at UW! So many important foundational resources for those looking to do their “work.”


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