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Evolution, Not Revolution, at The Walters

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Editor’s Note: This interview with Julia Marciari-Alexander, the Andrea B. and John H. Laporte Director of the Walters Art Museum, and Guy Flynn, Board Chair President, was conducted in October 2020 for BmoreArt’s tenth print journal, centered around the theme of power. The discussion takes on greater relevance with the museum’s March 15 announcement of a new series of initiatives that activate many of the goals expressed, including greater transparency around the Walters founders’ support of the Confederacy, as well as a roadmap of new steps to ingrain diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) principles into the organization’s practices to address harm and to build a more equitable future.

The Walters is not unique, in that most existing museums were built upon principles of colonialism, extraction, and white supremacy. Currently, a number of museums are attempting to rectify centuries of wrongs in order to better serve diverse and growing audiences in preserving a collective culture and sharing a more inclusive, accurate, and authentic version of history.

Although the push for change has been years in the making, it appeared to gain more momentum in 2020. Many museums have felt increased pressure to change from their own employees, whose widely circulated social media posts have revealed the low wages, mistreatment, racism, sexism, among other trenchant issues workers face. Since September 2020, an anonymous group of Walters employees, under the username @ABetterWAM, has been using Instagram to highlight issues at the museum, advocating for pay increases, reckoning with the museum founders’ support of the Confederacy, and improving transparency and communication across the museum, among other ongoing concerns.

For the Walters Art Museum, it is an important step to acknowledge the gaping omissions in the museum’s own story around William Walters and his son, Henry Walters, and “their support for the Confederacy, and the ways in which they profited from racist labor policies and practices before and after the Civil War,” as well as their accumulation of great wealth through banking, railroads, and rye whiskey.

In public-facing text, both on the museum’s website and on the gallery walls, the Walters explores the complicated legacy of the founders, whose gift to Baltimore City established the museum in 1934 as an institution “for the benefit of the public,” but whose collecting practices and curation were steeped in white supremacy and secessionist politics.

According to a press release, the revised text about the museum’s history identifies the “‘biased and Eurocentric view of what does, and does not, represent human artistic achievement’ that necessarily informed the Walters’ collecting—as well as subsequent generations of museum professionals and collectors.” The fourth-floor installation, From Rye to Raphael, which told the collectors’ stories through their collected objects, has been retitled Building the Collection: 19th-century European and American Art. “The installation includes updated information about William and Henry Walters and new labels about how the historic collection reflects beliefs about what was considered to be culturally valuable and meaningful art. Also, the installation highlights works of art that reflect current strategies to augment the collection through acquisitions, expanding our understanding of the existing collections and adding new artistic voices to the collection, most especially those of artists of color.”

“As historians, the process we have embarked on is to research and share the facts we have about our founders and our institution accurately and openly,” said Marciari-Alexander. “This museum was given to the city of Baltimore in 1931, and this is fundamentally a story of Baltimore’s history—and one we hope can lead to more inclusive dialogue going forward.”

In conjunction with new interpretations of its history, the museum announced new DEAI goals, part of a larger process of an “institutional transformation” that embraces anti-racist work and principles, and included an increase in the minimum wage for all full-time hourly workers to $15 per hour in January 2021. The new DEAI plan addresses five separate areas of the museum’s activities, which include action items varying from a new statewide vision for educational programs, working with strategic partners in the region around workforce development, new compensation plans for pay equity, and ongoing analysis through data, metrics, and results for accountability purposes.

It is within this new announcement and context that we present online the article based on our 2020 conversation with museum director Julia Marciari-Alexander and board president Guy Flynn, originally published in print in December 2020.

 

Julia Marciari-Alexander, Walters Director, and Guy Flynn, Walters Board President

In 2015, near the start of her tenure as Director of the Walters Art Museum, Julia Marciari-Alexander had a revelatory moment in the Egyptian galleries. During a performance, artist and rapper Martina Lynch spoke about the faces of pharaohs depicted in ancient sculpture and how they generated a sense of beauty, power, and connection to her ancestors. The performance illustrated one way that the vestiges of past civilizations, and the diverse depictions of historic individuals, offer the power to inform the present, especially through the work of contemporary artists. For the Baltimore museum with significant holdings of ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian sculpture, Renaissance and Impressionist paintings, as well as a collection of Asian ceramics, illuminated manuscripts, and decadent jewelry, Marciari-Alexander believes it is essential to consider the context of contemporary Baltimore in interpreting objects from the past toward building a better future.

“This art becomes a part of our cultural DNA,” says Marciari-Alexander. “Experiencing the Walters through the lens of contemporary artists unlocks the complexities of history and also our present. I believe it’s our responsibility to unravel the history so that we can see the bigger picture.” The Yale graduate came to the museum in 2013 from the San Diego Museum of Art and initially focused on completion of a $30 million endowment campaign and restructuring of the organization, with an intellectual mission to build the museum’s ability to expand the museum’s audiences in and around Baltimore.

For the Walters’ new Board of Trustees President, Guy Flynn, a Baltimore-based philanthropist and veteran commercial real estate partner at DLA Piper, the influence of cultural DNA at the Walters is more personal. The Columbia, MD native and graduate of Howard High School visited the museum regularly throughout his childhood, recalling the beauty of the architecture and his fascination with the world-class objects. But he also suspects that he may have caught his first glimpse of his wife, Nupur Parekh Flynn, a Baltimore native and frequent visitor, at the museum when they were children. After receiving his bachelor’s degree and Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia, Flynn’s interest in the museum evolved and he realized that he wanted to give back. He became a board member in 2009, served as Vice President from 2013 through 2019, and has become a leading advocate for continuing to evolve the museum and secure its future sustainability.

“In 2020, museums are facing a reckoning and a sense of urgency around relevance and changing mores, as well as an awareness of the need for historical objects—and the stories they tell—to teach us how to build a better future,” he explains. His goal is to undertake long-term and lasting change through working with staff, leadership, and the board, and ensuring that everyone feels represented in the work. “Throughout the museum world there is a certain well-understood itchiness to create change, and to have it done quickly. I believe, however, that change must include consensus to be sustainable, and we should consider employees, stewards, donors, members, docents, supporters, and community partners—all of whom consider themselves part of the Walters family and stand for positive change—in making these decisions,” Flynn says.

Board President Guy Flynn and Director Julia Marciari-Alexander
Those [workers] will outlast our board, which turns over every six years on average. We need to make sure we are building a foundation with them and our community of stakeholders so that the next generation of trustees can build upon this. DEAI cannot be a disjointed effort—it has to reflect the past and future of this institution, and be built deliberately, not in a rush, so that the changes we make are lasting.
Guy Flynn

Both Marciari-Alexander and Flynn are proud that the museum has been able to keep all of its employees on the payroll during pandemic-related closures, with many working from home and others back on the job since the museum reopened in September (but closed again in November). Despite closure due to Covid-19, both see the past six months as extraordinarily productive, a time to focus and reorganize, including rethinking and expanding the role of technology and digital engagement with museum audiences and supporters, and implementation of operational and programmatic diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) initiatives at the museum. This has presented an opportunity both for ongoing dialogue about historic inequities and lack of diversity in the museum field, and to build relationships across the museum staff, board, and leadership. The Walters Board of Trustees is currently 34 percent people of color and 59 percent women.

“We have many staff members who have been here for ten, twenty, or more years, and also some for just a year,” Flynn says. “Those people will outlast our board, which turns over every six years on average. We need to make sure we are building a foundation with them and our community of stakeholders so that the next generation of trustees can build upon this. DEAI cannot be a disjointed effort—it has to reflect the past and future of this institution, and be built deliberately, not in a rush, so that the changes we make are lasting.”

As the second African-American board president at the Walters, Flynn has a unique perspective on many of the issues currently facing museums, and Marciari-Alexander says that their professional rapport and mutual respect have created new opportunities to consider progressive change at the museum. “What does diversity look like in 2020? It’s not just race or gender,” she explains. “For me, the ability of the board to drive change now is based upon solid past decisions—that they were thinking about 2020 back in 2010. This position of stability, which has allowed us to keep all the staff employed with no furloughs or layoffs, was actually set up for us in the aftermath of 2009. Back then, the board began the endowment campaign.”

One step towards financial diversity and equity that Marciari-Alexander and the Walters’ board took in 2016 was to take 10 percent of their endowment and invest the funds in Black and minority-owned firms. She worked with Cal Baker, then the chair of the museum’s investment committee, and this strategic investment has grown to 21 percent of the endowment in 2020. “This was and is rare in the cultural sector—thinking about our investments as a lever for diversity,” Marciari-Alexander explains. “And what’s interesting is that only now are folks in the cultural sector coming together around this idea.” The Walters is now part of a consortium of cultural institutions from across the country that are meeting to learn more and drive this work nationally.

“It’s essential to realize that diversity can mean different things to different people,” says Flynn. “I grew up in Howard County, around so many different racial and socioeconomic groups in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. People chose to live there precisely because they wanted to be around diverse people and points of view. That experience has informed me throughout my life, and has taught me a lot about determining the best way forward by including divergent, and sometimes conflicting, viewpoints.”

Both Marciari-Alexander and Flynn believe that bringing contrasting historical and contemporary perspectives to the Walters’ collection will prove to be a source of strength for the museum and build the foundation for a solid future that can accommodate the true and complicated histories of Baltimore. “We need to accurately tell these stories, to have a baseline we can start from,” says Marciari-Alexander, who describes the Walters as one of the great museums in the world and top tier in America. “Most museums are built through a variety of individuals giving single works, but the Walters is a collection of collections. When it became public in 1934, it was the only museum of its kind in the country, and this was a direct reflection of the founders and their unique position in Baltimore.”

The founders of the Walters, father and son William and Henry Walters, became incredibly wealthy through the manufacture and sale of rye whiskey and amassed a world-class trove of objects collected from travels across the globe. In 1931, Henry Walters donated this collection, and the buildings that housed it, including the Walters’ family home, to the city of Baltimore. But the two were also known Confederate supporters, and William left the US for Paris during the Civil War to avoid imprisonment. The Walters founders’ story is fraught and complex, and since the museum’s founding, their roles were honored with the negative aspects of their history glossed over. But both Marciari-Alexander and Flynn believe that telling the history as a multifaceted, complex, and uniquely Baltimore story has the potential to strengthen the city going forward.

“This collection has the ability to bring history back to life and tell so many stories—not just about the founders, but also about who created the art and in what context,” Flynn says.

“Acknowledgement of the past is essential,” agrees Marciari-Alexander. “And acknowledging the complexities is not the same as endorsing behavior. As a historian myself, with a specialization in gender studies in art, the notion that history is a narrow, straight line with one set of truths is not real. We need to present the facts accurately, so that we can have an inclusive conversation about the history and look at it from different angles at different times. I see this discussion and unpacking of history as a collective enterprise.”

The director explains that the museum has recently conducted research around the founders’ actions in support of the Confederacy and has made the information available in the museum’s fourth-floor galleries. “So far, their biographies have been mostly art historical, so we are conducting further research through family and curatorial records. Talking about history, even when it makes us uncomfortable, should be an asset, not a deficit,” says Marciari-Alexander, who adds she is not interested in venerating relics of the past, but confronting ambiguities and bringing people into dialogue about it. “We do not live in a world of absolutes, although history has often been presented this way.”

Flynn says that he gained a direct understanding of the complexities in unveiling a hidden and complicated past as a student at the University of Virginia. “There was always an implicit/explicit tension between Jefferson’s obvious legacy of good in contrast with the other aspects of his life,” he says, referring to Jefferson’s role as an owner of enslaved people, including his own children. “It serves everyone to tell the story accurately, so that people have a baseline to make informed decisions—not to slander or destroy anyone, but to tell the whole story, including the good and bad parts. The past informs who we are, and when you deny an accurate telling of history, you do everyone a disservice.”

Marciari-Alexander believes that there is an ongoing debate about power, in government and cultural sectors, where the media presents it as an argument that one side wins, depending on which publication you read. “Real dialogue is difficult because people will always disagree. The real question is how do you move forward, given that institutions are set up to create systems of power,” says Marciari-Alexander. “If institutions can become places of learning and dialogue rather than stance and position, that feels more like a win. Our mission is to bring art and people together, to consider how objects reveal lives—not only the lives of the objects and the individuals who made them, but those who lived with them and touched them over time. I’m fascinated by the way people are intrinsically embedded in the art at all times and how they have the ability to reveal so much.”

 

This story is from Issue 10: Power,

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