Priya Frank: Joy is my Weapon

In one of our most vibrant interviews to date, we had the chance to meet up with Priya Frank, a powerhouse individual who is the current Associate Director for Community Programs at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), the Founding Chair of the museum’s Equity Team, as well as Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. She was named one of “Seattle’s Most Influential People: Ones to Watch” by Seattle Mag, and is responsible for bringing SAM to the forefront regarding community involvement and conversations about race and equity. We we’re so lucky to see her in action while working at the SAM and to visit her in her home (that’s just around the corner from us! yay! neighbors!). In addition to being incredibly talented and accomplished, she’s indescribably kind and charming, and we love how much her sense of style encapsulates her personality.

We’ll continue to follow what she does in Seattle; because wherever Priya goes, fantastic things will follow.

Q: How would you describe your personal style? Who are your style icons?

Joy is the weapon through which I lead. I want to celebrate life and I feel like my personal style reflects that. I hope people see my style as they see me: Unique, joyful, approachable, and always true to myself. My style has always embraced and reflected that through bright colors, patterns and details and big jewelry. Most of my clothing is from thrift stores, and usually every piece holds a secret or a story, whether about how I acquired it, or the life I have lived in it. It is important to wear my identity so I can come from a place of authenticity when engaging with other people and building lasting relationships. My style is about the holistic picture of what my presence represents, who has influenced my journey that I have sought inspiration from, and how that is represented when I walk into a room.

Authenticity has only become increasingly important over the last few years, as I navigate walking into rooms where most times I am the only woman of color. In my field, 73% of museum workers are white, with the majority of the 27% people of color represented making up environmental services and frontline positions. 93% of museum directors are white. My style helps me embody confidence without filter because I am often engaging in conversations or talks with large groups of people about topics like institutional racism, power sharing, white privilege and equity fatigue. I often channel strength and bravery during these situations through what I wear.

Style Icons: My mom and her style through the decades, Frida Kahlo, Gabrielle Union and her line for NY & Company, Jennifer Lopez, Tracee Ellis Ross, Amina Mucciolo (insta: studiomucci), Lisa Frank (!), Ozwald Boateng

Q: Can you describe any of your favorite looks/outfits and why they were so special to you?

Physical examples that embody my values of authenticity and genuine-ness come in the form of:

– My signature hoop earrings- an influence of my time living in Miami
– Doc Marten Combat Boots- you can thank David Rue and my orthotics for this stylish and practical choice
– Baby Phat reversible fur coat- Perhaps one of my greatest thrift purchases of all time thanks to Value Village Southcenter
– Boom box necklace- an important nod to the 90’s and the mixed tapes I loved so much
– Jumpsuits circa early aughts- They remind me of my days at DV8, the under 21 dance club that was infamous in Seattle. You name it, I had all the versions: denim, snakeskin, backless, etc.!

Q: Artists, curators, or community members that inspire you to continue your work?

Elisheba Johnson, Randy Ford, David Rue, Leilani Lewis, Chieko Phillips, Eve Sanford, Gabriel Bello-Diaz, Matthew Lawrence, Jaimée Marsh, Dovey Martinez, Colleen Hayashi Echohawk, Tracy Rector, Edwin Lindo, Vivian Phillips, Sheila Edwards Lange, Derek Dizon, Natasha Marin, The Onyx Collective, my Seattle Arts Commission family! C89.5 radio station, my colleagues in the Education and Public Engagement Department at SAM.

“My style helps me embody confidence without filter because I am often engaging in conversations or talks with large groups of people about topics like institutional racism, power sharing, white privilege, and equity fatigue. I often channel strength and bravery during these situations through what I wear.”

Q: Will you give us some insight on your job? What does being the Associate Director for Community Programs entail?

My focus is on building partnerships, developing authentic community building strategies, and creating and implementing equity related initiatives at the museum. I am the founding chair of the museum’s equity team, which focuses on internal racial equity work amongst staff, board, and volunteer populations. I also organize programming around exhibitions, such as free community openings for most of our major exhibitions, and a community gallery which showcases the art of local community groups, providing space for voices that may not be represented within the larger exhibitions at SAM. In addition, I consult with various departments at the museum on messaging, marketing, language, policies, and how to review these processes using an equity lens. I often meet with organizations and individuals locally and nationally, making recommendations on how they might bring their own racial equity work to fruition. This has led to opportunities to present at conferences, retreats, and trainings both within and outside of the arts.

Q: What are some of the projects you’ve worked on in your career that have brought you the most joy? Any challenges that you’ve been proud to overcome?

My work at LUCID Lounge was a huge influence in my life and how I do community building work through the arts. It was the place where I felt all things were possible and as art curator, I was able to bring my vision to life the way I knew how- through connectivity and dialogue, mixed with specialty cocktails and bathroom installations!

One big highlight of my job at SAM is being the Founding Chair of SAM’s Equity Team, which focuses on creating culture shift to center racial equity amongst the staff, board, and volunteers. These group of 35 people from different departments at the museum are leading a charge to change the museum landscape, not just locally but nationally, through our work on everything from microaggressions, to pay equity, to programming for staff that bridges differences and builds trust. They inspire me every day.

Being Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission this year has brought me so much growth personally and professionally. I was super intimidated by the thought of taking on this position, but had incredible mentors like Vivian Phillips who coached me out of my fear, and into ownership of my own unique skillset and what that might bring to this leadership position. I’m learning so much about city politics, community need, policy making and equitable practices in funding structures, while bringing my own gifts, like prioritizing authentic community engagement and advocacy and how that can strengthen relationships with fellow commissioners (past and present), City Council, the Mayor’s Office, Office of Arts & Culture, etc.

Q: I know you’re the Founding Chair of the Museum’s Equity team, and with all ways institutional racism has been historically embedded in museum culture, it makes me feel so hopeful that a woman of color is leading the SAM to become more diverse and inclusive.

What have been some of the impacts that you’ve noticed within SAM since the team was created?

It’s been incredible to see how small steps can lead to big change. Whether you look at the strategic plan, HR practices, or how meetings are conducted, there is a culture shift that is taking place, and I believe that the Equity Team has a lot to do with that. This kind of work takes time. The Equity Team is helping the museum stay dedicated to, excited about, and accountable for the goals in the strategic plan as well as our values in place. Examples of the work we are doing focus on everything from examining messaging, labels, and web content, to the way we look at the works being presented, the questions we are asking ourselves as an institution, and how we can cultivate the next generation of arts leaders, by creating more inclusive and welcoming spaces both internally and externally. I’m so fortunate to be part of a museum that recognizes that in order to get to the ultimate goal of eliminating institutional racism, we must first start internally. Together we are building a movement and space that will one change the face, experiences, and perspectives representing the field, as well as the perception of those who come and visit.

Q: What are some changes that would benefit Seattle’s art scene and community?

The understanding that the arts are a vital tool and solution to a healthy and thriving city- not an added bonus. Investment in resources and business skillsets are necessary so that artists and creatives can continue to be able to live and work in Seattle, especially artists of color. Recognition of how the arts are a huge economic factor in what it means to be a thriving city. Articulation that the arts are the heart of this city.

Q: You’re one of the most charming and engaging people I’ve come across in Seattle, and especially doing equity work (resulting equity fatigue I can only imagine!) for such a long time, how do you like to unwind and take care of yourself?

I blush!! That means the world to me!!!!

I just got back from a vacation with my parents, aunts and brother, and I forgot how much being away can help bring clarity about priorities, and just allow my brain to reset. I read a book, walked on the beach, swam, watched movies, and tried to stay off my phone. It was amazing!!!

Coming out of the trip helped me realize taking care of myself also means prioritizing myself physically. I take classes at my gym like Zumba and kickboxing to help me feel strong, and MixxedFit with Randy Ford at the Northwest African American Museum, which is the BEST workout and so much fun!

I’m really trying to be more intentional about setting boundaries, because my community building work and my personal life intersect so much. Because my job is very social, I usually need one day a week to reset, and not really talk to anyone. I hole up in my apartment to clean and organize, cook something in the crockpot, and watch movies on Netflix! It is so fulfilling to me!

Therapy has helped me be more confident, healthy, and unapologetic for my choices and decisions. It has provided me with tools to unleash my best self. There’s no going back now!

Q: Tell us about an exhibition (piece, community gathering, party…etc.) that has stuck with you, yours or otherwise!

SAM Exhibitions:
– Peacock in the Desert: It was amazing to see the history of people who looked like me being represented at SAM, along with a large South Asian demographic that came to visit!
– Kehinde Wiley’s A New Republic: Not sure that I need to say more, but it was the first exhibition I experienced when I started working at SAM, and the ripple effects of that exhibition on the Seattle community continues to reverberate today.

– The yəhaw̓ exhibition at King Street Station. That is truly the definition of community collaboration using an equity lens. I get to go there often for Commission meetings and am reinvigorated every time I walk through that space-of what is possible. It reminds me of the Margaret Mead quote: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Q: Any future projects you’re excited about?

SAM is collaborating with Natasha Marin and the Seattle Department of Transportation on a project creatively advocating for pedestrian safety on Rainier Avenue. On Wednesday, June 19, from 2:30-4:30, people in the neighborhood will be able to make their own neon reflective, wearable art, and then grace the “runway” which will be two crosswalks covered in glitter and flower petals on Rainier Avenue! There will be photographers there to capture folx in action, and iconic crosswalk ambassadors to help us strut our stuff!

The re-opening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum and all of the possibilities for community collaboration! For example, in the new community gallery space, we plan to collaborate with API Chaya to host a special tribute to the organization’s 25 years of powerful, life changing work, curated by their amazing Community Organizing Program Manager, Derek Dizon.

Exploring my own projects more! I love vision boarding and facilitating experiences that allow people think through their own goals and aspirations, as I continue to explore and articulate my own as well. So…make art, eat tacos, drink wine, and continue to figure out how as a community, we can live our best lives!!!

Priya Frank is shown in this editorial wearing our Deep Space Fine Top + Jumper (top), Relay Dress, a custom Short Sleeve Critical Line in Denim hand painted by Malcolm Procter, Hyperkinetic in Army, Kit Jacket in Electric Red, Confetti Dress, Revel Dress, and our Long Cloak Hoodie in Hot Sauce.

Photos & Interview by Mel Carter

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