Self-Fashioning and the Object-hood of Art
Julia Marciari-Alexander brings erudition and passion to the Walters collection
Published: October 9, 2013
When Julia Marciari-Alexander was named the new director of the Walters Museum in February, she had some big shoes to fill. Gary Vikan had transformed the museum (making it free, among other things) during his 27-year tenure as director. Marciari-Alexander, however, brought a great deal of experience—most recently as the deputy director for curatorial affairs at the San Diego Museum of Art and previously at the Yale Center for British Art. In her book Self-fashioning and Portraits of Women at the Restoration Court: The Case of Peter Lely and Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, 1660-1668, she used scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s notion of self-fashioning to create a new view of what has often been considered a rather boring period of portraiture. Now that she’s had time to get settled, City Paper sat down with Marciari-Alexander in the Walters Cafe to discuss her vision for the museum.
City Paper: I read you talking about how the Walters family was collectors of contemporary art in their time, and recently the museum has hosted the Sondheim exhibition and the Vershbow show. Is that something you’d like to push further?
Julia Marciari-Alexander: I am very interested in the notion of contemporary art as being part of a continuum of creation across time, so that people don’t think of this as a closed or a dead collection, everything by people who haven’t lived in over a hundred years. So the Walters can show contemporary art in a different way, it has its own quirkiness as a collection, and finding artists, like Gregory Vershbow, who exploit and are interested in that quirkiness is something I’d love to explore. But we are not going to have a contemporary art museum. There are other venues and better venues in the city for that. But I really strongly believe that the Walters needs to maintain an eye in that plane of vision so that we’re not just kind of closed and dead. And as I say, Henry and William were both collecting contemporary art. And we have an upcoming exhibition on contemporary ceramics. All of this was put on the schedule before I got here, but contemporary Japanese ceramics is right in the wheelhouse of what the Walters collected, because William Walters and Henry were buying some of the most beautiful Japanese and Asian ceramics that built the foundation of our collection in their lifetime from living artists. So the “Peach Bloom Vase” doesn’t sit in a case ensconced in its time. Just by itself.
CP: You mention that all of these things were planned before Gary Vikan left. When will we start seeing your fingerprints, and what is your vision?
JM-A: The good news is that one of the reasons I was so eager to come is that I don’t see my fingerprints as being so different from what Gary has done here that the museum needs to kind of do a complete right-hand turn in order to enact my vision. Some of the things I did in San Diego were to bring contemporary art to interact with historical art. My favorite project in San Diego was to bring [contemporary abstract painter] Howard Hodgkin’s exhibition into the same space—but a discrete portion of the same space—as a big [18th-century painter] Thomas Gainsborough exhibition and saying to our audiences, “When you see Hodgkin, you will look differently at Gainsborough, and when you see Gainsborough, you will look differently at Hodgkin.” And Hodgkin, as a contemporary artist, is interested in being considered within that trajectory. He’s never really been interested in the competition with his peers, necessarily, he’s thinking of the competition with his forebearers and the masters. So that’s something I would love to continue to do here, and that’s something that’s not very different from what has happened here before. But I want to also be very respectful to the Contemporary, which now has its new incarnation, and may [try] working with the director Deana [Haggag] and figuring out ways to collaborate.
And it’s time for the museum to do something it has done very well in the past, which is to turn inward and to look at its permanent collection. So I think as we embark on some retrofitting that needs to happen from an infrastructure perspective, you are going to start seeing some new displays, and you’ll start seeing that in about 18 months.
CP: You got sort of a twinkle and a grin when you said that, do you have any specifics you want to share?
JM-A: I really would like us to create a generation of museumgoers rather than exhibition-goers. So even when we have special exhibitions, I think the focus is to use those exhibitions to shine a light on what we have in the building all the time. So even in our advertisement for the Egypt show that’s going to be on the television—look out for that—we’re going to end with a discussion of the permanent collection. In terms of the twinkle in my eye, I’m having a conversation with the curators next Friday to get them to start thinking in this shifted mode about what they want to do with their collections. And how they want to reinvigorate people’s experiences with the collections here. And one of the things I’m hoping to do is to test the waters a little bit in terms of getting the curators to think more across geographical lines and maybe think more chronologically and make some interesting juxtapositions in the gallery spaces. Right now we ghetto-ize a lot of things, Asian art in Hackerman House, 19th-century art from Western Europe on the fourth floor. The place where we achieve the most cohesiveness in terms of a global vision is in our jewelry division, where we have rings from all over, but still mainly from the Western tradition. But helping people see the permanent collection in a different way is something I’m interested in doing.
CP: One of the interesting things is the way that a lot of recent exhibitions have not necessarily been visual. Like the Archimedes exhibition, the whole point of it is that you couldn’t see what was there. It requires a lot of historical context. In putting things from the different galleries together, I gather you are trying to contextualize them in a different way or to decontextualize them, so that people actually see?
JM-A: I’m a cultural historian, so I come at art history—depending on your era—from a material-culture perspective, from the visual-culture perspective. I became an art historian because, as a young girl, I was interested in history, so the idea that these objects are not only representatives of their culture but also reflections of their culture and contributors to their culture really interests me. How a paintings lives its life within the time in which it was created and then over time after that is fascinating to me. So I work on paintings of dead white women, really dead, 400 years in the ground—
CP: The court of Charles II?
JM-A: Yes, exactly. These are women who have in many cases fascinating life stories. But the way that art historians have always talked about these paintings—and, I will say, mainly male art historians—is “Oh, isn’t it interesting that there was such a style. You can’t tell any of these women apart. They all look alike.” Well, that was actually part of the artists’ intent because, just as we now have a style that is prevalent, it was fashionable to look like the king’s mistress. It was not only fashionable but it was also politically expedient to look like the king’s mistress. The difference is that we don’t sit in the same room with these women while their portrait is behind them, so we can’t make that connection between “that’s a good portrait, it looks like you,” or “wow, that works really nicely.” We don’t have that connection. I’d liken it to, in the ’80s and early ’90s, the big models were Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, right? So I know exactly who they are. You talk to my dad, and he couldn’t have told you who they were and [so] they all look alike. So how is that any different in 1985 than in 1685? It’s the same thing. It’s about understanding, about the way in. That’s using my little example from my speciality to say that I’m really interested in that issue of access and making something appealing that seems completely inaccessible and uninteresting. “Really? These paintings that look like, as someone said, ladies who are walking through a stream in a nightgown held by a pin.” Which is why they are so interesting. Why are they outside? Why are they wearing a nightgown that is fastened by a pin? I think if I can have someone come in and get interested in something, they think they have no interest in, that is a win. It can get people to think about how objects do have lives. We live in this digital world where everything is “like” something. You’re on your phone looking at this painting but it’s actually not the painting. My goal in pushing our collection out, in Gary’s vision—which has been achieved in that we’re still doing that, we’re pushing a lot of material out—is to get people to come in and experience the real object. So you can have access in Singapore, but when you come to Baltimore, you should want to see the real thing. So everything should drive you back to the object.
One of the reasons I love Howard Hodgkin’s work so much is one of the reasons Julian Barnes talked about which is the objectness of the paintings. And that’s something that doesn’t convey digitally. And that’s what I want people to experience in the museum, the objectness of something that may fascinate them primarily from a historical perspective. But still making that connection between the object and the subject. We are one of the great object collections. We’re not just paintings and sculptures: We have manuscripts, books, rings, combs, teacups, we’ve got everything. It’s a very object-heavy collection and that’s something that makes us versatile in a way that other collections that are mainly works on paper, paintings, sculpture—that’s mainly still just flat media, even if sculpture is three-dimensional, it is still just a three-dimensional representation, whereas here we have, I’m just thinking, Russian enamels or teacups that are beautiful works of art but don’t have representations of a man or woman. Or they might, but it is a work of art in its own right instead of a three-dimensional representation of something else.
CP: When you first got this job, were you terrified by the idea of having custody of all of this, or were you like, “Wahahaha, it’s all mine!”
JM-A: So my big secret is that I am worried that I don’t have a big enough ego to be a museum director because I’m so interested in building teams, relying on the expertise of others, and giving people space to be their best. I like making decisions and I can be autocratic, but what excited me about this is that the staff and the board are so strong that I thought, Wow, I don’t have to be “Ha ha, this is all mine!” I don’t have to be that museum director. I can be the museum director that gives other people the light and gives the objects the light that they deserve, and that’s what makes me happy. I wake up every day feeling like I’ve won the lottery. I feel more lucky than scared.
CP: So your book is about the way people fashion their sense of self through art. If someone were to write that same book in a couple hundred years about self-fashioning in 21st-century Baltimore and were to have a chapter on you and the Walters, what do you imagine that might look like?
JM-A: I would hope that the city and the museum would have become through a very conscious self-fashioning process, a place where the understanding of the importance of visual arts and visual culture in the 21st century was both reached and maximized and made open for everyone, so that the city and the museum and all of that proves that art isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. And it’s even more of a necessity in this word in which we live right now, which is the most visually rich culture since the Middle Ages. It’s not only a moment in which people are visually savvy, I think more people than we presume are actually visually erudite, but there is still a disconnect between the life we lead every day and the relevance of a repository and temple of creativity that is a museum that I think we have the opportunity to shift and change. The museum is critical to teaching and helping us reflect on the ways that art shapes humanity.
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