THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

Julie Rodrigues Widholm, Director, DePaul Art Museum

DePaul Art Museum, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois

 

Interview with
Julie Rodrigues Widholm

Director, DePaul Art Museum

 

Tom Mullaney—Can you tell me when you arrived at DePaul and what one or two of your previous positions had been?

Julie Rodrigues Widholm—Sure. I arrived in this position in September, 2015, so about 3 ½ years. And prior to that, I was a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art for about 16 years. I started there right out of graduate school at the School of the Art Institute [of Chicago].

TM—Some of us at the New Art Examiner feel that the sector that is doing the most in terms of exciting, engaging exhibitions is the university museum sector. Your museum’s emphasis, in recent years, has been to really shift toward under-represented artists, artists of color, the very issues facing the field. Tell me how you have shaped the exhibition program?

JRW—I think you are correct to identify that aspect about our exhibition program and our collection. We have a collection of 3,500 artworks, and we are building that while thinking about the role we play within the City of Chicago and how we can augment what other institutions are doing.

We also are bolstered by the University’s mission, which is very focused on service and social justice. So that, coupled with my own frustration and interest in how museums can do a better job of representing our communities and our cities. Whose stories are not being told and why is that?

TM—It seems to me that the major museums have only lately begun saying their purpose is to be a “catalyst for change.” MoMA just announced an expanded focus on formerly overlooked women and artists of color. What forced the major museums to embrace change?

JRW—I think the public is increasingly demanding it. Museums are being held accountable for the decisions they make and for them to become more transparent about how they make those decisions. What is their role in the community and to come down from their ivory tower. Their language and institutional approach to being a museum is being questioned and challenged.

And that’s also part of a cultural shift, right? Now, you can get information at your fingertips. So, they are thinking about a changing culture that is demanding changing institutions.

TM—Other than [former Met director] Tom Hoving and maybe [former Guggenheim director] Tom Krens, museums have tried to portray themselves as, “This is the way it’s been.” They never felt the need to justify [that] since the culture felt the museum was a special place. It seems that now, they have been shaken to their roots and are aware the prevailing model will not survive.

JRW—Well, I think that the roots of many museums are colonial and patriarchal, so that’s being called into question… the kind of European, white, male art history that has dominated our history for more than a hundred years. It’s not that there weren’t women and artists of color around in the past hundred years. It’s that they just were not invited in and seen as doing quality work.

And I also think you have my generation, Gen X if you will, now coming into positions of power and leadership, so we have a different approach from the older generation, who came up from different traditions and conventions of museum work.

TM—What is a recent exhibition that most represents your thinking?

JRW—Last fall, we had a solo exhibition of the artist Brendan Fernandes. He is an artist originally from Kenya, who grew up in Canada, and is a former ballet dancer. His work is fascinating because we have this collection of 200-plus African objects, made in the 20th century but not considered “modern art.”

So, I was grappling with the question, “How do we treat this material in an art museum and a teaching museum?” Brendan is an artist who’s very interested in how museums collect African objects—how do they display them, how do they research them. His exhibition is so multi-layered but essentially about how museums collect.

Most museums don’t have a lot of information about these objects because they weren’t considered important. Brendan’s show is one that is interdisciplinary. That is something we aim to present in our exhibitions.

TM—What area do you feel that museums, in general, but also university museums need to tackle most?

JRW—I really think museums need to better tackle community engagement and outreach. How are we involving communities in our projects earlier in the process and getting buy-in throughout in thinking about public programs, thinking about exhibitions? I think we can do a better job so that we don’t do all of the work behind the scenes, present it to our public and then hear from them for the first time.

TM—Who of your colleagues in the university museum field do you admire most and are your thought leaders?

JRW—I greatly admire the Hammer Museum at UCLA, which some people say has transcended the category of university museum. But I’ve long admired what Ann Philbin has done there and transformed it from a smaller museum to a vibrant, challenging, relevant place for social discourse and artistic innovation.

TM—Do you see somebody locally who is doing something a little different from you?

JRW—Gallery 400 is doing amazing work. Their program is ambitious, very outward-facing to different communities around the city and committed to social justice as well. I love what the Museum of Contemporary Photography is doing. They have a dynamic program that is globally focused.

TM—Is there anything you would like to add?

JRW—Well, I think university museums may have a reputation as being more stodgy, traditional places, showing a lot of works on paper. But I believe they can be very dynamic and risk-taking and really leading the way for how museums are thinking about how they function in community, especially being critically important for our next generation of cultural workers.

TM—What one word describes the best quality of a university museum?

JRW—Generous.

 

Tom Mullaney is the Managing Editor of the New Art Examiner.

 

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