Michelle Cheng joined the Frye Art Museum as their new director of education and community partnerships earlier this year. Prior to joining the Frye on August 5, Michelle worked at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and the New Haven Museum. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Comparative Literature from Binghamton University and a M.A. in Art + Design Education from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
She is new to Seattle, having only visited a couple of times before moving here from the Northeast.
Cheng grew up in Queens, NY, with immigrant parents from the Hong Kong area. She drew a lot in her youth and took art classes at the YWCA. In middle and high schools, she selected art as her major. In college, she was interested in architecture and art history. Her immigrant parents did not really know how the system worked, and weren’t able to tell her what it meant to go into any particular field of study. She needed to figure it out for herself. This experience left its mark on Cheng, as she now makes sure her work in education opens doors for young people who may not know what their educational and career possibilities are.
As she explored art history in college, she found she enjoyed aspects of museum education. She selected the graduate program at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and her passion evolved into her career. She said education and career path was very organic. “You know, looking back on it, it looks like a nice linear path,” she said. But it certainly was not planned.
In New York, she worked for the Smithsonian. “It was such a big institution,” she said. “It’s not easy to feel like you’re part of the larger conversations and part of that decision making.” She said that the experience is much different at the Frye and allows her to be a part of the conversation and work closely with the community.
Moving out to Seattle allowed Cheng to find a new balance in life, away from the intensity of New York. She found that Seattle still felt urban, but it was a place with more access to nature, and of course, it offered the exciting new position with the Frye.
Since starting the position, Cheng said she’s been reaching out and meeting people and groups who use the Frye’s program, …participating in a listening tour of sorts, learning how to meet the needs of the communities she’s working to serve. “What I’m really proud of is that I’ve done a lot of different programs that (the Frye) offers, such as the work with different audiences: with school groups, the general public, and teachers. So I’m aware of what it is like to be, on the one hand, giving these programs, but also just the experiences that different people or groups are looking for,” she said. “I’m taking my time learning, and seeing what makes the most sense to evolve and grow.”
Michelle and the Frye seem to find much in accord in that they both want to build community, start from a place of empathy, build on the diversity of programs that go beyond studio classes, school tours, and talks, to music and mindfulness meditation, to creative classes supporting people transitioning from homelessness and other challenges, and people with dementia.
She knows there is a feeling that museums can feel elitist and agrees with this sentiment, even when they try hard to unshed that image. So many people may feel uncomfortable, and this is a barrier, to even consider visiting a museum, let alone participating in its programming, even if the admission is free, as in the case of the Frye.
An example to break down this barrier is to work with diverse communities, to create exhibits and experiences in which diverse people can see themselves, like the “Jane Wong” exhibit. Or to work outside the museum walls, like doing art activities at the nearby Seattle public school, Bailey Gatzert Elementary’s BBQ night, building relationships so that students and parents will feel comfortable visiting the Frye. Or offering experiences that go beyond the exhibits, like the Frye’s regular lunch-time mindfulness meditation, an offering that focuses on the ultra local, that builds “a sense of belonging somewhere where you’re comfortable”.
Keenly aware that the arts are often first on the chopping block in schools, Michelle is still surprised how little arts education there is here, especially given the wealth of arts organizations in Seattle. So, naturally, one of her priorities is to focus on younger audiences. “Arts education is such an important outlet,” she said. “Performing arts helps build confidence…talking about art builds communication, critical thinking skills.”
She recalls her work at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, the design workshops that focused on building empathy and understanding one another. One of her favorite exhibits there was called “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision”. It asked designers to think about “how to integrate understanding when you don’t have your sense of sight?, to activate other senses and find interesting solutions for people who may not be able to see.
“What else can they do? They can smell and touch. The exhibit was also very hands which I tend to like. One becomes immersed in it,” she said.
As she settles into her job and her new home, Cheng said she will continue to explore the neighborhoods in Seattle and dive into the food the city has to offer. And she will of course be building immersive experiences for the audiences and communities at the Frye Art Museum.