Growing up in Georgia, E. Michael Whittington was always curious about the world around him. Like many young children, he fed his fascination with books from the local library. Whittington’s eagerness to learn continued throughout his early life, especially towards the intertwining of arts, culture and history. His passion for the topic eventually took him to college where he studied anthropology— which fueled his dream to work in a museum.
After earning his master’s degree in art history, Whittington landed a job at The Mint Museum in 1995 as a pre-Columbian and African art curator. There, he discovered his enjoyment of fundraising and community engagement – a model he felt strongly about. Wanting a chance to instill that model and create change in other institutions, Whittington left The Mint Museum after 10 years and went on to earn a position as executive director for the Monterey Museum of Art in 2005 and president & CEO of Oklahoma City Museum of Art in 2013.
Last December, Whittington received a phone call from Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM). After an intense conversation about opportunities, challenges, and goals for him and the organization, he graciously accepted the position as executive director in March 2022. Whittington not only achieved his dream, he exceeded it. Hear more about his ambitions for BAM, what he’s looking forward to at this year’s Arts Fair, and his favorite places around Downtown Bellevue.
What challenges and opportunities did you see at BAM when you first started?
There are challenges with every organization. The biggest one right now is battling the pandemic and keeping people interested since we couldn’t host our major fundraisers such as Artful Evening and the Arts Fair. With these challenges, we can always pull opportunities out of them. Now that we’re seeing a steady decrease in cases, we can focus on reconnecting with the community and introducing BAM to those who haven’t visited. With the right resources and tools, art museums can significantly impact people.
Why were you drawn to BAM?
One of the biggest reasons is because, unlike most museums, our concentration isn’t on permanent collections. BAM puts all their energy and resources into exhibition programs focused on art, craft, and visual design. This is super unique within the Puget Sound region. For the first time in my career, I'm able to be a part of a museum that symbolizes the inclusion of craft and design into its mission.
You’ve worked as an executive director for over 15 years now, what has been your favorite part?
My favorite part is watching an institution change and grow in meaningful ways. It’s immensely powerful to see individuals who support museums and the community around them have pride in what we do. It’s a profoundly moving experience for me to help others be part of something meaningful.
Since my arrival here, I’ve practically given power of attorney to The Container Store. I spend way too much time there.
Do you have any favorite hidden gems in Bellevue?
As someone new to the city, the Bellevue Downtown Park is just so beautiful. The scale and layout are incredible.
Where do you see BAM in 3-5 years?
I want to grow the budget sustainably. I want us to have a deeper level of community engagement and place BAM as a community museum. We have this unique concentration on art, craft, and design with a primary focus on the artists. There are so many opportunities to advance BAM, I’m excited to be a part of it.
Follow Bellevue Arts Museum for more information on their exhibitions and art installations:
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Bellevue Arts Museum 510 Bellevue Way NE Bellevue, WA 98004