New CEO of Seattle Art Museum Embraces Innovation with an Openness to AI and Advanced Technologies

Scott Stulen. (Bhadri Verduzco/Courtesy Philbrook Museum of Art)

Scott Stulen studied studio art in college. He’s a DJ and plays pickup baseball. Some of his notable accomplishments include producing a viral Internet Cat Festival and building a mini golf course.

That’s not exactly the typical background of a museum director. But it might be what Seattle Art Museum needs.

“I’m coming at it as a maker and a creator,” Stulen said of his new role as director and CEO of SAM, which employs more than 300 people across three facilities in Seattle, including its flagship location downtown.

Stulen was most recently president and CEO of the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla. He’ll take over leadership reins at SAM at an important moment as the nonprofit aims to boost membership and attendance to pre-pandemic levels, and play an important role in helping revitalize downtown Seattle.

Stulen, who says he “loves” tech, plans to take a data-driven, nimble, and open-minded approach to the job.

“Our job is taking amazing art, and positioning it in a way so our audience actually comes to the front door and can consume it and have a really transformative experience,” he said.

Stulen officially starts Aug. 26. His wife and two sons are relocating with him to Seattle, where he says he’s looking forward to taking in Mariners games, concerts, nature, and staying cool (it’s 99 degrees today in Tulsa).

Read on for more from our conversation with Stulen. Answers were edited for brevity and clarity.

GeekWire: How are you thinking about innovation in this job?

Scott Stulen: As an artist, you’re always looking at responding to the environment around you and looking ahead to anticipate trends. Thinking about audience needs and different ways of approaching it has always been core to my work in museums.

Arts are so important to people’s lives. But often museums have created a lot of barriers, or ways in which the museum is not relevant. So part of my career has been finding different entry points to invite people in — and once you’re in, how do we have you look at the other stuff that’s there and become part of the museum?

How does technology play a role?

You have to be really smart about integrating tech into the museum in all different aspects and really thinking about it as a tool. How does it enhance your mission and your end goal and help you really understand your audience better?

I don’t think making everything into giant video projections everywhere is the solution for an art experience. There’s still something incredibly moving about sitting in front of a painting on a wall, and having that slow analog experience. But I think tech can be behind that in so many different ways in how we’re facilitating with our audience.

What’s your take on artificial intelligence and its impact on the arts?

It really depends on how it’s going to be used. I think the one thing that we can’t do is just pretend it doesn’t exist and that it’s going away. It’s something that we’re going to have to be dealing with.

It’s going to raise a lot of questions about authenticity in ways in which we haven’t fully grasped yet. And it’s also going to be very helpful. I use it almost every day for writing and to quickly process information — it can be incredibly helpful on that front.

I do think museums can be a place to have difficult conversations about what is authentic or not, or who owns certain information or not. We’re losing more and more spaces where people can have places of debate or be exposed to different ideas. My hope is that museums can be one of those spaces.

Would you be open to hosting AI-created art at SAM?

Yes, I would. There are always questions about what that actually looks like. Museums should reflect and speak to what’s happening in the world at this time, not just being a historical archive of things, but really speaking to topics that matter to the community. And if this is one of the big things that we’re dealing with as a society, I think museums should be in the middle of that, and talking about it and presenting things that challenge our audiences and also bring to light some things that people maybe aren’t aware of.

“Untitled (Métaboles),” a 1969 sculpture by artist Alexander Calder, is visible from above in an exhibition of his work at the Seattle Art Museum. The exhibition is a gift from former Microsoft President Jon Shirley and his wife Kim. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

How can the tech community get involved with SAM?

One of the things I think that we are really needing right now, particularly coming out of the pandemic, is places for people to gather and connect with one another. People are really isolated still. How do we have places that people can have these real world offline experiences? Museums can be one of those places that brings people together, around an art exhibit, or going to a film, or seeing music, or just coming in and hanging out with friends. And that can be something where there is some alignment with the tech community — providing a space that’s interesting, innovative, fun, dynamic, and a place that becomes a little bit of that town square. There’s no reason why museums and SAM can’t be one of those spaces.

Are you a PC or Mac guy?

Mac. I always have been.

Most used app on your phone?

It’s probably still Twitter, even though I shouldn’t be using it. I’m kind of a news junkie and Twitter is still the place where most of that action happens.

First concert?

I saw Rage Against the Machine on their very first tour back in 1991.

Most played song on your playlist?

I’ve been listening to a lot of the new Waxahatchee record that recently came out, Tigers Blood.

What’s been your favorite art experience?

Professionally, one of the most moving experiences was a show we did during the pandemic at Philbrook. We went out in the community and collected 3,000 artworks from kids. We framed every single one and put them in the main gallery at the museum. We developed an app so parents could find where their kids’ art was hanging. It was so moving because these kids were incredibly proud to see their artwork on the walls of a major museum and bringing their parents and grandparents through. Some of those kids will become artists and that will be their first show ever. It was such a simple thing, but it was one of the highest attended shows we’ve ever done and I would argue one of the most impactful.

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