Berkeley art museum, film archive’s new director takes helm
By Lou Fancher
If there is a serendipitous moment for Julie Rodrigues Widholm to become the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s new director, August 2020 is surely it.
Widholm this month succeeds BAMPFA’s previous director, Lawrence Rinder, who stepped down from the position after co-curating a final tribute to Bay Area-based artistic talent: “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective.” That exhibition now on virtual display features more than 70 African-American quilts created by the internationally renowned Richmond resident and artist who died in 2006.
As the art museum’s new director, Widholm faces multiple problems — namely, the pandemic-imposed lockdown’s financial impact and the slow awakening and struggle of art museums nationwide to recognize and reflect the full breadth of communities and histories they are meant to serve and represent. Against an array of complexities and sitting amid unpacked moving boxes after a road trip from Chicago the day before to her family’s new digs in Berkeley, Widholm has this to say in a recent interview:
“Diversity, inclusion and representation have become buzz words unaccompanied by action. Those frustrations have been leading my work. I’m a doer, a problem-solver. I want to see results. It’s about museums being courageous and less fearful to expand, open up and change. The historical dominance of European and other familiar movements are the framing so many museum leaders for the past 100 years have been taught. I come from a humanitarian perspective. I’m curious about all experiences of life. Museums have become narrow. We have to challenge notions, dismantle the wall of authority.”
Following curation of major exhibitions while at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Widholm’s five-year tenure as director and chief curator at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago saw the university museum increase attendance by 40%. Demonstrating her focused energy were expansive outreach programs; acquisitions of more than 500 works by people of color, women and LGBTQ+ artists; and the Latinx Initiative, the DePaul’s multi-year commitment to present the work of U.S-based artists of Latin American descent. Establishing more WoC (women of color) in key roles on her staff, Widholm carved a managerial path aimed at growing talent from within and diversifying the pool of people who shape projects.
“I’ve talked about museums being in crisis for the last five years,” she says. “It’s beyond racial and gender diversity. Management leadership and training practices — there’s a ton of work to make museums less exploitive of their staff, to clarify roles, to grow leaders responsibly. More resources have to go to training at all levels.”
BAMPFA’s board chair, Catherine Koshland, led the new director search committee and says, “She will engage the UC Berkeley community and the wider Bay Area community as we reimagine the cultural and social role that museums play. Julie impressed us with her vision of how university art museums and film archives can welcome and interact with diverse communities, stimulate critical dialogue, and inspire the imagination. I have every confidence BAMPFA will thrive under her leadership.”
Asked to describe significant childhood art experiences while living with her Turlock-born parents whose work took the Central California family to Brazil, Mozambique, Portugal, Germany and numerous U.S. cities, she recalls high school art classes and an Henri Matisse book that her grandmother gave her. She says a field trip to the Alhambra palace and fortress in Spain was “incredible.”
If museums were not a large part of the activities, immersion in international cultures and languages was the hook that later led to earning a bachelor’s degree in art history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s degree in art history, theory and criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Widholm believes BAMPFA, an academic art museum on the dual borders of a university campus and Berkeley’s “vibrant art community in the East Bay,” is positioned to be a place of questioning.
“Asking of ourselves, ‘What is our role?’ with transparency, with having students curating exhibitions, is a wonderful way of creating narrative and making meaning out of the work. An academic museum is perfect for rigorous debate without fear.”
The conversation turns to the form in which she might bring the Latinx Initiative to the West Coast and her thoughts on BAMPFA’s inclusion in The Feminist Art Coalition. The coalition involves more than 100 U.S. museums presenting programs in 2020 and 2021 informed by feminist thought and practice.
“There’s absolutely a lack of Latin American artists when I scan the landscape of museums in America. Latinx Initiative absolutely makes sense in the Bay Area because of the huge cultural histories of Latinx here,” Widholm says. “And it’s perfectly timely that I’m taking leadership of a museum that’s part of this nationwide undertaking. FAC (The Feminist Art Coalition) embodies a spirit of collaboration. It allows artists and institutions to define feminism for themselves and acknowledges the multiplicity within conversations about feminism.”
While noting the museum’s proximity to BART and high-visibility exterior architecture — surprisingly, all of the job interviews were conducted on Zoom, and Widholm had yet as of this writing to actually enter the museum — she knows accessibility is much more than elevators and multilingual presentations.
“How do we create an experience where everyone can feel comfortable? Are we creating barriers?” she asks. “Intention versus impact is the moment we’re in. For example, say my intention wasn’t to come off as racist, but I did. Or my intention was to help, but I caused harm. We have to listen more to what people need from us, rather than giving them what we think they need.”
Asked for final thoughts, Widholm says that despite the challenges, returning to California is joyful. With foggy mornings, sunny afternoons, natural beauty everywhere and plenty of veggie-friendly places for the longtime vegetarian, she says, “It’s a dream: I don’t have to check the weather, even in winter.”