It was a year ago that Julia Marciari-Alexander took over for Gary Vikan at The Walters Art Museum. As a new director with a reputation for reinventing gallery spaces, you might think she’d be eager to make a splash and launch major initiatives. But, as Marciari-Alexander is quick to point out, the Walters didn’t need a major overhaul, just some fine-tuning. “In some ways, my job is harder, because Gary and his staff did a great job for such a long time,” she says. “It’s an incredible privilege to follow someone like Gary, and it’s incredibly difficult.
But evidence of change in the first year was never my goal. I didn’t want to come in and change it up just for the sake of change.” Marciari-Alexander sits at a conference table in an office characterized by its ornate décor and the sort of near-liturgical ambiance that hovers around cloistered treasure. It might be stuffy, stifling perhaps, if not for her disarming presence, which offsets any pretense. Her sunny disposition played well in Southern California—where she was previously deputy director for curatorial affairs at the San Diego Museum of Art—and it has endeared her to arts leaders around town.
Fellow museum directors Rebecca Hoffberger (American Visionary Art Museum,) and Doreen Bolger (The Baltimore Museum of Art) praise Marciari-Alexander’s unflagging enthusiasm for not only the Walters, but also the broader arts community and the community at large.
“Julia’s participation in February’s Maryland Arts Day in Annapolis spoke volumes about her commitment,” says Bolger. “She talked to the legislators about the arts with such passion. It was wonderful to have her energy with us.”
Her grassroots-level approach to the job furthers work done by Vikan and dovetails nicely with similarly minded peers like not only Bolger and Hoffberger, but also Kwame Kwei-Armah at Center Stage and Marin Alsop at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Gone are the days of shying from community engagement, and we’ve likely seen the last of someone like former BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov, who didn’t speak English and projected aristocratic cool.
Engaging the public is now paramount, and the director’s job has become increasingly ambassadorial, but with expectations of visionary—or at the very least, bold—leadership. “Because the Walters already had a history of strong leadership and engaging with the community,” says Marciari-Alexander, “I’ve been able to come in and figure out where we can improve, as opposed to feeling like we have to build something from scratch. We’ve been making improvements and deepening that commitment. The frustrating aspect is that it’s never fast enough.”
Visitors to the Walters will begin seeing evidence of her efforts over the coming months, as the museum tweaks its curatorial approach, de-installs some beloved collections, and enhances interactivity. Marciari-Alexander will also be exploring the possibility of partnerships with a new set of potential collaborators. And don’t be surprised if a local video-game company is in the mix.
“There is real excitement about the next phase of our development,” she says.
A pair of adjacent rooms on the main floor of the Walters’s Charles Street building illustrate where the museum is headed. The Chamber of Wonders—which opened in 2005, after extensive renovations at the Walters—has proven to be its most popular gallery. Modeled after a 17th-century nobleman’s chamber, or cabinet of curiosities, it taps into a spirit of exhibiting an impressive and far-reaching collection of art and artifacts to astound visitors. That was the goal 400 years ago, and that’s the goal today, as paintings and sculptures are displayed alongside exotic talismans, taxidermy (including an alligator), and hundreds of other intriguing objects—including sword grips, scarabs, and a corn mummy.
The focus is on the collection, with limited wall text. (Explanatory notes are available on laminated cards placed discreetly around the room). The room was carefully curated by Joaneath Spicer, but it is also more family-friendly and less overtly didactic than a typical Walters exhibition. It eschews a chronological, encyclopedic approach for something more experiential. “We see that space as an example of a supreme museum experience,” says Marciari-Alexander. “It’s art historical and intellectually rigorous, but also really fun. And it acknowledges the needs of all ages and facilitates intergenerational learning.”
She sees it as “a bellwether” for what’s to come: “It’s the sort of thing we want to integrate into more spaces throughout the museum. I don’t think all the spaces have to look that way, but we’re looking for ways to create interactivity that is multi-layered so people can think about and be with objects in new and different ways.”
And while the Chamber of Wonders illustrates her overall curatorial approach in the galleries, a small display in the adjoining 17th-century Dutch cabinet room hints at the perspective she brings to individual objects. Amongst the jewelry in a display case mounted on the wall are tiny painted portraits of unidentified men and women. But where most people might simply see the portraits as painted miniatures from a dusty past, Marciari-Alexander, who specializes in art from this era, likens them to, of all things, the iPhone.
“The act of encounter that someone had with a portrait miniature is similar to the act of encounter that we have with an iPhone,” she explains, turning over her hand and gazing at an open palm. “You hold the world in your hand. Centuries ago, that world was the image of a loved one.”
She smiles broadly, obviously tickled by the notion. “It’s also the idea that you telescope your vision from your eye to your hand and then out the back of the hand,” she continues. “You enter into that world and then look out, into the much broader world around you.”
Like many objects exhibited at the museum, we don’t know who actually made them. But to Marciari-Alexander, the names aren’t as important as the stories they tell. “What is it about this object that has touched and moved viewers over time?” she often asks herself. “I love the idea of how objects live through time and thinking about why an object was created in one moment, perceived in another moment, repurposed in a third moment, and then how it’s looked at today. It’s our job, as stewards, to honor the life of those objects.”
Overall, Marciari-Alexander views the Walters’s holdings as “a collection of collections,” similar to how she sees Baltimore as “a community of communities.” She lives in Homeland—with her husband, John, and their 10-year-old twins, Beatrice and Jack—and is quick to note that Baltimore is more European than she’d anticipated. “It has, like European cities, great food, culture, and architecture,” she says, “along with distinctive neighborhoods that are infinitely walkable.”
The city’s thriving art scene makes her feel “continually uncool,” she says. “It’s at the forefront when it comes to thinking about art and different media, as well as the relationship between craft, fine art, and visionary art. It’s a crucible for exciting work, the kind of place where schools like Baltimore Design School and Baltimore School for the Arts are putting all these disciplines into the supercollider and creating new things. It’s an exciting time to be here.”
Marciari-Alexander hopes to tap some of that talent for the Walters. She was thrilled the museum hosted last year’s Janet & Walter Sondheim Prize finalists’ exhibition, showcasing the work of six local artists, and looks forward to exhibiting more contemporary art. Though she emphasizes the Walters won’t be competing with the BMA, Marciari-Alexander is open to exploring how contemporary work might interact with the various collections.
“It’s another way of presenting what we have in new and exciting ways,” she notes. “People don’t readily associate the Walters with contemporary art, but they forget that the things we have weren’t always historic art. In fact, William and Henry Walters collected contemporary art, as well as art from the past.”
She’d also like to partner with Baltimore’s education, technology, and video-game communities. The Walters held its second annual Art Bytes hackathon, a weekend-long event that brings together tech and creative types to find new ways of engaging museum visitors. A panel of judges awards $1,000 prizes to the best projects, and this year’s winners looked at how the Walters might utilize QR codes, an iPhone game, viral Tweets, and a database of public art.
Sid Meier, director of creative development at Hunt Valley’s Firaxis Games and one of this year’s judges, says he’s not only open to working with the Walters, he’s “excited by the possibilities of forming a connection to the rich history of the art world. I hope we can help preserve and share great works of art through digital collaboration.”
Those efforts would focus on creating more interactive experiences on the Walters’s already impressive website, generating more public interaction with curators and other staffers. It’s sort of a digital extension of the museum’s fourth-floor conservation window, which allows visitors to observe and question conservators about their work. “It’s all about developing mechanisms for us to communicate with people who express interest in certain artworks,” says Marciari-Alexander. “Creating a dialogue around that is the future of the museum.”
That said, presentation of and access to the Walters’s permanent holdings, its collection of collections, remains paramount.
“What’s on view at the Walters all the time is what we need to be emphasizing,” says Marciari-Alexander. “You come here to see your favorite objects, and it’s free. There’s no admission charge, so this can be your community center. Stop in and use the bathroom, or come in from the cold and experience some great art. Come in for a few minutes, or spend all afternoon.
“Of course, you also come for a temporary exhibition, which costs money, but we aren’t luring you here just for that show. In fact, we should be treating the permanent collection almost like a temporary exhibition. It should be compelling and always changing, so you see familiar things in a new light every time you come. Technology is going to be a very big factor in that, because it allows us to provide those experiences in more nimble, less-intrusive ways.”
The word “nimble” comes up repeatedly when Marciari-Alexander discusses the Walters’s future. She has a reputation for transforming museums into lively, agile environments. During her tenure in San Diego, she oversaw reinstallations in all the museum’s public gallery space. Don’t be surprised if something similar happens at the Walters, especially considering that renovation of the Centre Street building is now more than a decade old.
In fact, deinstallation of some galleries has already started. In July, work begins at Hackerman House, partly to refurbish the space and make physical plant improvements. But there’s a broader plan at work, and some of Hackerman’s Asian art will be incorporated into a new exhibition opening this fall.
It’s too early for Marciari-Alexander to discuss details, though she says the exhibition will “bring together the art of different cultures around the idea of collecting and the idea of the Walters. It will shake things up a little bit.”
After all, she says, “Once we take artwork down, we don’t have to put it back in the same place.”