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Balancing act: Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture leadership strives to emphasize ‘art’ and ‘culture’

Freya Liggett is the history curator and Wes Jessup is the director of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Freya Liggett is the history curator and Wes Jessup is the director of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

The first time Freya Liggett noticed a job opening at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, she let it pass on by. Not only was she enjoying her role as the longtime manager of the Moses Lake Museum and Art Center, but the MAC’s ever-revolving door of leadership over the past several years would give anyone pause.

After the hiring of Wes Jessup as the MAC’s executive director two years ago, came a feeling that things were looking up for Spokane’s 100-year-old cultural institution. The next time a position came up, this time as the MAC’s new curator of history, Liggett jumped at the chance to join the team. She has been on the job for two months.

“I really got the sense that things were changing at the museum and that the atmosphere had become really open and inviting,” Liggett said.

The most encouraging change for Liggett was Jessup himself. Liggett first worked with the MAC’s new executive director while she was serving as president for the Washington Museum Association, an organization dedicated to supporting the state’s museums. Jessup and Liggett both served on the Heritage Capital Project review panel that makes recommendations for grants to museums working to enable public access to heritage resources.

“I recall thinking that Wes was someone who is very informed and respectful, and who really pushed the conversation on that panel,” Liggett said. “I thought, ‘I want to learn from somebody like this – a leader I can get behind.’ ”

Jessup’s vision for the MAC was similar to what Liggett said she worked to achieve in Moses Lake: “The combination of history and art, looking at those historic stories, maintaining a historic collection while also working with contemporary artists in the region,” she said. “Those elements can be very difficult to balance, because they have different audiences, different priorities.”

The fan club is mutual. Jessup said he hired Liggett because of her more than 15 years of museum experience and her can-do spirit. As Moses Lake’s museum manager from 2007 to 2019, Liggett was responsible for creating an entirely new arts and culture center for the city.

“She transformed that museum from just a storefront hole-in-the-wall into a major cultural center for the community,” Jessup said.

In addition to her solid industry experience, Jessup was impressed with Liggett’s vision for what a museum should do for a community. “(Liggett) understands the balance between art, history and tribal cultures that we manage here at the MAC,” he said. “It’s a three-legged stool, and we need all three legs.”

Jessup’s background suits him to guide the construction of that three-legged stool. The 50-year-old grew up in Alaska, where he worked with the tribal leaders of 20 villages to create a cultural center in the Bering Straits region. He was the founding director of the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and has worked at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He was most recently the director of the Longmont (Colorado) Museum and Cultural Center, where he more than doubled the annual attendance.

He points to several recent and future MAC exhibitions as examples of balancing art, history and tribal cultures. Last year’s Edward S. Curtis photography exhibition, entirely organized in-house, was his favorite so far.

“It was the combination of the photographs and the objects from the permanent collection, some of which you could actually see in the photos,” Jessup said. “It was like: ‘It’s all coming together! YEAH!’”

The exhibition “As Grandmother Taught: Women, Tradition, and Plateau Art,” on display now through the end of the year, is another prime example of what Jessup describes as “fulfilling the three-legged stool.” The show is comprised of the works of three Plateau women alongside historic material from the museum’s permanent collection.

Highly attended traveling exhibitions such as the Titanic, which brought in a record-breaking number of visitors to the MAC last year, tend to gobble up huge amounts of exhibition space. However, Jessup said he is committed to always having something showing in the galleries that is from the museum’s tribal collection.

“Our tribal collection is just gold,” Jessup said. “It’s an amazing jewel box of treasures, so I always want to be sharing that with the public.”

Settling into her new role, Liggett is currently focused on organizing the upcoming “Mount St. Helens Critical Memory” exhibition, which will open at the end of this year. The exhibit will feature film, photography and recordings of primary sources. It will run as a companion exhibit to the “Pompeii: The Immortal City” exhibition the MAC will procure from Naples, Italy, scheduled from February to May 2020.

Liggett was born 40 years ago, just months before the Mount St. Helens eruption, but at another volcano site in Mount Shasta, California. She was raised in Portland, where she experienced a special affinity for the 1980 eruption in Washington.

“I grew up with a box of newspaper clippings and the bottle of ash,” Liggett said. “I feel very close to that need for capturing those memories, and making them of use to people who see the eruption as a major collective memory of our region.”

“That I just turned 40 as the eruption at Mount St. Helens turns 40 feels like a touchstone to me,” Liggett laughed.

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