He leads an art museum in Santa Fe. Now he’s going to head the Tacoma Art Museum

David Setford is the new executive director of the Tacoma Art Museum.
David Setford is the new executive director of the Tacoma Art Museum. TAM 2018

David Setford, a curator and museum administrator with a varied international art background, has been named the new executive director of the Tacoma Art Museum, it was announced Friday.

The appointment comes a year after the museum lost its previous executive director, Stephanie Stebich, to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Setford, 61, the executive director of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society in Santa Fe, New Mexico, will be the seventh executive director in TAM’s history.

Past TAM board president Steve Harlow said Setford stood out from other candidates for his fundraising abilities and community engagement skills.

“David has been very successful at the museums he has previously served,” said Harlow, co-chair of the search committee.

Setford will start March 5. He comes at a time when TAM is between expansions.

In 2014, the museum opened a $20 million wing and gift of Western art donated by grocery store magnate Erivan Haub and his wife, Helga, who have a home in Arletta near Fox Island.

Later this year, the museum will finish construction on another wing donated by Seattle patron Rebecca Benaroya to house a gift of Northwest studio art glass.

“We clearly felt David would be able to accomplish that on time and on budget,” Harlow said.

In addition to the Western and glass collections, TAM has an extensive permanent collection, including the country’s largest retrospective collection of works by Tacoma native Dale Chihuly.

Setford will “clarify our vision as a leader in Pacific Northwest art, Western American art and now, studio art glass,” Harlow said.

He will oversee 60 employees. TAM declined to reveal Setford’s salary.

Setford interviewed twice at TAM after first being vetted by a national search firm. He spoke with staff, management, trustees, appointed community members and key donors, Harlow said.

TAM’s search committee was unanimous in selecting Setford.

He arrived in the United States in 1990 at age 34 from his native England.

“It was very tough in the arts in England in the ’80s and early ’90s,” Setford said earlier this week.

But that wasn’t the only reason for the move.

“Romance,” he said. “I married an American.”

Setford will move to Tacoma with his wife, Lindsay, and possibly their college-aged daughter.

Setford said he had an interest in glass art while at the University of Manchester. He even made a film about it.

“It really captivated me, that whole alchemy-like process,” he said.

When Setford was chief curator at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, his knowledge of the genre expanded.

Setford started his career as a 19th- and 20th-century European art scholar. He earned a bachelor’s degree in combined arts from the University of Leicester and a master’s degree in museum studies at Manchester.

He later expanded his area of interest to American art and then added Western art.

“Modern and contemporary is really where my heart lies now,” he said.

Setford was director of The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York, and launched the opening of the Wiener Museum of Decorative Arts in Dania Beach, Florida.

The Spanish Colonial Arts Society in Santa Fe hired him in 2014 to improve fundraising, among other duties. It has an operating budget about one third that of TAM’s $4.5 million budget.

“I was not hired in Santa Fe for my knowledge of Spanish colonial art,” Setford said, “though I picked it up pretty darn quickly.”

He met with the Haubs, who are avid collectors of Western art, during the interview process at TAM, but said his time in Santa Fe wasn’t a disproportionate factor in his hiring.

“The fact that I was in Santa Fe, which you could say is one of the nexuses of 20th-century Western painting … I think it was a coincidence,” he said.

He’s worked on shows featuring Western icons Georgia O’Keeffe and Frederic Remington as well as Northwest artists Jacob Lawrence and Chihuly.

Setford wants to grow the audience and donors at TAM.

He also wants to increase the museum’s ties with the community.

“The right exhibitions and the right programs — which don’t have to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in — are the best way to engage and bring in a local audience,” he said.

He wants to find ways to excite the community in the same way TAM has had success with its El Dia de los Muertos observance, which draws 3,000 to 4,000 people annually.

He wants Tacoma to know TAM is “not the institution on the hill.”

“We are absolutely open to all, and we want everybody to be aware of us,” Setford said. “And we want everybody to know what we’re doing in a positive, community way.”

Setford has relatives in the Pacific Northwest and first visited the area in the 1980s.

“It’s taken me from 1990 to move from Southeast Florida to the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “It feels like I’m coming home.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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