Julia Marciari-Alexander draws out a new vision for the Walters

Museum's new director will emphasize the permanent holdings, community outreach and might even collect contemporary art

  • Julia Marciari-Alexander started full-time as the new director of the Walters last week.
Julia Marciari-Alexander started full-time as the new director… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
July 05, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

On her first official day of work, Julia Marciari-Alexander heads down to the basement of the Walters Art Museum to say hello to a room full of squirmy 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds attending summer camp.

A girl with curly, brown hair looks up from the strand of wire she's twisting with a pair of pliers to form the framework of a small animal.

"What does a museum director do?," she asks Marciari-Alexander.

All of Baltimore's arts community is waiting to find out how the Walters' new leader will answer that question.

With its masterpieces of Egyptian, Greek and medieval art and its setting in adjoining Palazzo and Greek revival style rowhouses, the Walters is one of Baltimore's crown jewels.

Sixteen months ago, the former director, Gary Vikan, announced he was stepping down after 18 years at the Walters' helm. Vikan was in many ways a visionary, so the news whipped up a gust of consternation and the sense of excitement and possibility that accompanies any change.

When the board of trustees announced last February they had selected Marciari-Alexander, a rising star who hasn't previously headed up a museum, the uncertainty intensified.

"What will Julia's imprint be on the Walters?" asks Robert Mintz, the Museum's chief curator. "We don't know yet. We're asking that same question."

Marciari-Alexander, who started full-time at the Walters last week, says she's been training for this job since college. But for the next few years, at least, her vision of the Walters will remain a work in progress.

So, the 46-year-old scholar, administrator and mother of two allowed a reporter to follow her around during her first full-time week. A meeting with senior staff, a phone call with a trustee and a tour of the museum itself yielded a few preliminary sketches of how the Walters of the future might appear.

Sketch 1: a landscape, "Expanding Horizons" Outside, it's a sultry 87 degrees. Inside, Henry Walters' former home, a Renaissance Revival-style rowhouse, the air conditioner – or is it just a fan? – is trying. At 10 a.m. last Monday, Marciari-Alexander walks into the room where six members of her senior staff members are waiting. She's wearing a short-sleeved tan shirtdress, and not only is she not sweating, she immediately reaches for the coffee.

Marciari-Alexander compares taking over the helm of the Walters as a novice director to her experience as being a new parent and having twins. As she once put it:

"Being a first-time parent is always a shock, no matter how prepared one thinks one is, but having twins is another thing altogether.

"When John and I looked at our friends who had had one baby and then had two, we were very glad we 'didn't know any better.' It allowed us to dive into twin parenthood without preconceived notions of how things should be. We just embraced the challenges as opportunities and went with it."

The Walters is known internationally for its medieval collection, while two miles north on Charles Street, the Baltimore Museum of Art specializes in modern paintings and sculptures.

So it's noteworthy how often contemporary art pops up during the Walters' staff meeting. There's a progress report on two shows planned during Vikan's tenure:

An exhibit just opened featuring the six finalists for the Sondheim Artscape Prize. This is the first year the show has been held at the Walters, not at the BMA.

And in September, a small exhibit will open of the Genesis series by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. Marciari-Alexander tells her staff some good news: the paintings' owners, Eddie and Sylvia Brown, have agreed to extend the length of the loan.

"We need to increase our holdings," Marciari-Alexander says one day over lunch. "That's the bottom line. There's a lot of assumptions that may not be true about what the Walters collects and what it does not. William and Henry Walters collected what they liked, and they bought art that was contemporary in their day.

"That doesn't mean we're going to start collecting a lot of contemporary art. But, we are going to think about how our holdings can and should be grown."

Sketch 2: a portrait, "The Mona Julia"

As soon as Marciari-Alexander moved into her new office, she replaced Vikan's commanding wooden desk with one used by Henry Walters — smaller, gilded and with exposed Queen Anne legs.

At 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Marciari-Alexander is seated behind the French desk, a shoe dangling from one foot as she talks to Walters trustee Rosalee Davison about a tea they may throw for donors. Marciari-Alexander mentions one couple who recently did the museum a big favor by helping with a future exhibit.

"I'm the new girl in town, and I'd like to develop my own close relationship with them," she says. "It's not so much about bringing them back into the fold – they're already in the fold – but in igniting a new interest in the museum."

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