Walters Exec Director Julia Marciari-Alexander on Art, Life, and Weather in Baltimore

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courtesy of Sachs Photography, Baltimore
courtesy of Sachs Photography, Baltimore

Julia Marciari-Alexander, the newly christened executive director of the Walters, can’t wait for July first. It’s not that the museum’s launching some grand new exhibit on that day; instead, July 1 marks the date her husband, John Marciari, will step down as curator of the San Diego Museum of Art and call himself an official Baltimorean. This early summer, he, Marciari-Alexander, and their twins, Jack and Beatrice, nine, will all finally reside together in their house in Homeland, embarking on a busy life guaranteed to bring extreme change.

In February, Marciari-Alexander replaced the retiring Gary Vikan, relocating from San Diego, where she’d served as deputy director for curatorial affairs at the SDMA since 2008, to become the first ever woman to fill the important Baltimore post. Armed with triple-threat qualities invaluable to any museum’s inner workings – natural charisma, important curatorial expertise, and community-outreach savvy – Marciari-Alexander, 45, aced the interview process for all the right reasons.

“During an extensive and thorough interview process, Julia impressed the search committee with her scholarship, her quick intellect, and her ability to engage people in a public forum,” said Douglas Hamilton, Walters board president. “She is passionate about the public mission of museums, and her enthusiasm is infectious. The board is confident that she is the right person to lead the Walters into the next generation.”

A people-person academic with a Ph.D. in art history from Yale, an M.A. in French lit from NYU, and a B.A. in art history and French from Wellesley, she was born in Memphis but grew up in Claremont, California, where her father was president of Pomona College from 1969-1991. (Incidentally, Baltimore Fishbowl counts two enthusiastic Pomona alumni among our staffers: publisher Susan Dunn and associate editor Rachel Monroe.) “My childhood was magical given all the amazing opportunities I had growing up in that environment,” Marciari-Alexander admits.

At the SDMA, Marciari-Alexander was a founding member of a partnership program that strategizes with community, museums, and the cultural arts to create a bridge between Balboa Park, where the museum is located, and the communities of the Diamond Neighborhoods in Southeastern San Diego. According to Walters press materials, “This four-year partnership resulted in the 2012 opening of the Center for Community and Cultural Arts.” Earlier, she spent over a decade at the Yale Center for British Art, where she curated and directed exhibitions and meanwhile taught many art history courses. Her special areas of scholarship: 17th- and 18th-century French and British art. She has written and edited numerous publications, including Politics, Transgression, and Representation at the Court of Charles II (Yale University Press and the Yale Center for British Art, 2008).

I talked to the exec director about her family, her life philosophy, her top favorite thing about the museum’s majestic space, how she’ll strengthen the Walters’ already robust educational programming, which currently serves nearly 30,000 families and more than 40,000 students and teachers from every single county in Maryland, and more.

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.

Make a difference, treat everyone as you wish to be treated, and always strive to have fun doing what you do.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

My goals are ever evolving, but my parents and older sister and brother taught me at a very early age that no one lives in a vacuum and that life is full of surprises. With that in mind, I try to create stability and to encourage flexibility for those around me and to let each person shine as best they can. If I do that in my work — and at home — the goals I set are more likely to be achievable, no matter how much they might require a stretch.

What is the best advice (or worst) you ever got that you followed?

Never go to sleep angry.

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

I’m just happy to learn that there are truths!

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Be an expert your field, never be satisfied by knowing only your specialty subject, and, above all, don’t take yourself too seriously.

What is the best moment of the day?

Snuggling with my twins Jack and Beatrice — at any moment of day!

What is on your bedside table?

Right now nothing… I haven’t had time to unpack.

What is one of your favorite local charities?

Why, the Walters, of course!

Which is your current fave Walters element, a particular room or a piece of art? Or what do you love most about visiting/working inside the space?

It is such a privilege to have the opportunity to live and breathe such a world-renowned collection of art spanning 55 centuries and from many cultures. All of it is wonderful, but I am especially excited to be able to explore those collections of objects that speak to my own expertise, 17th- and 18th-century French and British art. On a more personal note, it is such fun to have my office in the building that was the Walters [family’s] Baltimore home and, as the museum’s first female director, it is particularly meaningful to have a portrait of Ellen Walters (William’s beloved wife and early partner in collecting) in my office.

You have an ultra-impressive resume both academically and art-strategically, and a reputation for wonderful community-outreach creativity. How will you and your new team begin to bring Baltimoreans to the Walters for the first time?

I am honored to join such a stellar staff (I’m the new member of the team!) and, in concert with the Board of Trustees, we are all thinking together about how to make the Walters “top of mind” for all Baltimoreans — both to attract the first-time visitor and to create incentives for long-time supporters to sustain and renew their excitement. More generally, we are working to figure out how we can foster in Baltimore a culture of “museum going” rather than “exhibition going” — and we look forward to working with our cultural partners across the city to make this happen.

Why is Baltimore the right place for your family right now? What is your crew looking forward to most?

My family couldn’t be more delighted about moving here. Baltimore is a great city with vibrant culture, deep history, and a variety of land- and cityscapes. As cultural professionals, my husband and I know that there are few cities that are as committed to bringing arts to the broadest communities, and we love its diversity and individuality.

My nine-year-old twins, Jack and Bede (short for Beatrice), are really excited to go their new schools, Boys Latin and Bryn Mawr, in the fall, to making new friends, and –surprising though it maybe for the over-10 set — to the weather!

My husband, John Marciari…is writing a book on Rome, and finishing up an exhibition and major publication for the Yale University Art Gallery. Most especially, he is really looking forward to joining up with the Ultra Running community in the Baltimore region…just so you get an idea, as his parting gesture to California, he is running the San Diego 100-mile race in early June.

For my part, I am just looking forward to being fully settled with them at my side in our house in Homeland. Here’s to July 1!

 



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