Last spring, as I stood at the back of a small group of people at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I was thinking about the Nasher.

While waiting my turn to admire a monumental Mark Bradford work, I wondered: Was it just five years ago that I would pop into Duke University’s comparatively modest museum for 10-minute visits with Bradford’s work that was included in the Street Level show? Back then, the Los Angeles artist’s work was hardly known, and now, five years later, he was all the rage 3,000 miles away. What a feather in the Nasher’s cap.

Now the woman who put that cap on the Nasher’s head is leaving.

This fall, Kimerly Rorschach, the only director the Nasher Museum of Art has known in its eight years of existence, heads west to take the reins of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). She’ll run a staff fully 10 times that of the Nasher, oversee three separate facilitiesthe Seattle Asian Art Museum and the Olympic Sculpture Park in addition to the main museumand serve the largest city in the Pacific Northwest.

The Nasher hasn’t named an interim director but an announcement is expected soon.

It only was a matter of time that a director with Rorschach’s profile would move on. Last year, she was the second-to-last candidate standing in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston’s search. She currently presides over the Association of Art Museum Directors, which represents 200 museums across North America. And the Nasher’s track record of prescient exhibitions of artists before they became all the rage, like the aforementioned Bradford and Barkley L. Hendricks, made a blank spot into a hotspot for contemporary art under her watch.

“She certainly established a very strong program and identity, and really made it a force in the region,” says Emily Kass, director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Museum of Art. “The museum is respected nationally, I’m sure beyond that. The shows that her staff has organized have traveled to other major museums. Similarly, other shows have come there.

“But you know, it could have gone in any direction. It was her vision and her ability to get things done and develop relationships across the country that really put it on the map.”

It’s a far cry from what Rorschach directed when she arrived in Durham in 2004. The Nasher was a work site on a muddy hill. The former Duke University Museum of Art, which arts scenesters talk about like that great aunt their family pretends never existed, had closed in May. Not a glamour job by any stretch.

But Rorschach saw opportunity and challenge in the absence of a clear visionwithout dwelling on the absence of a building. Buildings are easy. Architect Rafael Viñoly’s design was done and the $24 million museum would open the following October. The unanswered question was: What would the museum be, exactly?

“Duke was building this new museum. It was half out of the ground,” Rorschach says. “What the museum would look like was set, already decided. And of course we were evolving from the old and much more modest Duke University Museum of Art, inheriting those collections. But it was wide open in terms of what this museum would do and what the program would be. I think Duke looked to me to provide the vision.”

Benefactor and namesake Ray Nasher’s collections”You know, the best thingsOldenburg, Calder, Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti,” Rorschach says with a wide grinwould be available to Duke for loans but were destined for his Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Duke didn’t have the resources to continue a 20th-century postwar art collection in that league. The Nasher’s identity would have to draw focus elsewhere.

The addition of other stakeholders, like a major university with every academic program under the sun to support, and a growing creative class community in Durham and the larger Triangle to attract, might easily overwhelm a director. Rorschach, however, saw one clear path.

“The answer that we came up with had to do with embracing the old collections and deploying them correctly,” she says, “especially for teaching in the university and in the K–12 programs, and having a new focus on leading-edge contemporary art.”

Rorschach and senior curator Sarah Schroth added Trevor Schoonmaker, a UNC grad and North Carolina native who had been curating shows independently in New York. After arriving at the Nasher, he organized the Street Level show in 2007 and continues to focus on finding the name artists of tomorrow with notable exhibitions like Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool in 2008 and next year’s Wangechi Mutu survey show. It has not been an easy path.

“Kim enables her curators to curate,” Schoonmaker says. “She supports you to build a collection. She challenges you and she pushes back and she makes you justify and do your research and really persuasively argue your position. But she lets you do your job.”

“It seems like a no-brainer after the fact because he’s such a great painter and the public responded so well. But at the time of pitching it, no one knew who Barkley Hendricks was. No one,” he says. “Kim wasn’t familiar with his work, Sarah wasn’t, no one on our board was familiar. And it required someone like Kim to say, ‘This is fantastic. This is what we need to be doing, pushing something new, giving attention to someone who’s been overlooked by the mainstream. Let’s go for it.’”

Birth of the Cool toured for almost two full years after it left the Nasher, including stops at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. “But if Kim doesn’t support it early on, it never happens,” Schoonmaker says.

“That’s what I think I achieved,” Rorschach says. “Creating a terrific museum that has really interesting programs and serves a very broad and diverse and complex audience: university, Durham, Triangle, national and international. And creating a reputation as a solid and important institution. That’s hard to do in a short period of time. Many museums don’t do it in a long period of time.”

Challenges likely await Rorschach in Seattle. SAM’s last director, Derrick Cartwright, abruptly resigned in May 2011 after just two years in the position. Although Cartwright said he craved a less administrative role in order to be more directly involved with artwork, there’s speculation about lingering organizational trauma from the recession. After Washington Mutual, a major financial backer, collapsed a couple months before his arrival, Cartwright laid off staff and even closed the museum for the first two weeks of 2011 to save money. That said, he also oversaw a Picasso exhibition that drew 400,000 visitors, and SAM’s membership is at an all-time high.

“I think of Seattle as a very forward-thinking and dynamic city,” Rorschach says. “It’s exciting to be part of that and to think about how an art museum can add value to a community that’s doing all those different kinds of things. To be successful as a museum director, you have to recognize and come to understand the unique context that you’re in.”

Rorschach might have added that, if you’re somehow successful, you change that context in meaningful ways. Your gain, Seattle.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Building a collection, and an international reputation.”