With the hiring of Julia Marciari-Alexander, it turns out the Walters wasn’t looking for the next Gary Vikan—it was looking for the next Kwame Kwei-Armah, or maybe the next Marin Alsop. Rather than hiring a director with experience running the entire organization, the Walters board selected a community-minded up-and-comer with innovative ideas and a penchant for generating excitement, with no preconceived notions of how the job should be done. Sound familiar?
It should, because the BSO and Center Stage took a similar approach to hiring at times when, institutionally, the stakes were high. Under previous leadership, those organizations had reputations for being insular and, at some level, out-of-touch with the city. Sure, they had community outreach programs, but when the director is averse to socializing with the locals and auditions all her actors in New York (like Irene Lewis), or when your top guy doesn’t speak English very well and comes off like a 19th-century aristocrat (like Yuri Temirkanov), you might have a problem.
The BSO set the bar for major arts organizations in this city by hiring Alsop, who simultaneously broke glass ceilings and pounded the pavement with the passion of a grassroots organizer. Among other things, she vaulted the orchestra into the 21st century by making it a presence on the Internet and on satellite radio, and she launched an ambitious music program in city schools (OrchKids) with her MacArthur “genius” grant money. Those initiatives would have been unthinkable under Temirkanov. At Center Stage, Kwei-Armah makes Alsop look like a slacker, with his whirlwind of initiatives, programming, and collaborations, which have created excitement at all levels of the cultural community.
And he and Alsop have one thing in common—they had no prior experience at their current jobs (at least at this level).
Marciari-Alexander continues that trend. Like Alsop and Kwei-Armah, she’s young (45 years old), energetic, and highly regarded in her field. She comes from the San Diego Museum of Art, where she was Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs. Prior to that, she was Associate Director for Exhibitions and Publications at the Yale Center for British Art. She gets high marks from the Walters board and the San Diego Museum for her scholarship, curatorial abilities, and her commitment to community engagement and making the museum relevant to the entire city.
“I’m not hampered by what the art museum had to be in the 20th century,” says Marciari-Alexander, during a phone interview. “I’m more interested in asking, `What is the function of an art museum in the 21st century?’ Thanks to Gary’s leadership, the Walters is in a great position to choose where it wants to be in 10 years and to get to whatever the next level is. I’m excited to partner with people to determine what this city needs and what this city wants.”
Marciari-Alexander is already familiar with Baltimore, having lived here for three years (1999-2002), when her husband, John, taught at Loyola. She says Baltimore, like San Diego, is “a well-kept secret. The people who live in those cities really believe in what’s there. And San Diegans and Baltimoreans don’t want other people to know how great it is to live there, because it’s so good the way it is. People from San Diego don’t want people moving there from L.A.”
It sounds like Baltimore and D.C., and I tell her I’m tired of hearing folks talk about this city’s supposed inferiority complex. As far as I can tell, no self-respecting Baltimorean wants to move to D.C. “There’s no inferiority complex,” adds Marciari-Alexander. “It’s pride. Why be anything other than what you are?
“This city and its institutions have real confidence in themselves. Baltimore is a city that is actively bringing people here, people who are looking at the next phase of their careers. The city is taking chances on people who have not been in these positions before. The Walters board is taking a chance on me. That sort of thing comes out of a confidence that allows the city and its arts organizations to take chances.”
Marciari-Alexander starts her new job on April 1st. Next week, I’ll post more about her thoughts on the Walters and community engagement.