In naming Julia Marciari-Alexander as executive director on Wednesday, the Walters Art Museum board of directors entrusted one of Baltimore's most important arts institutions to a rising star — and signaled an emphasis on community engagement even more than on a long history of leading an organization.
The Yale-trained Marciari-Alexander, 45, serves as the San Diego Museum of Art's head curator and starts her new post April 1. She will succeed Gary Vikan, who is retiring in June after 27 years at the Walters and who helped the museum become a national leader in rethinking the traditional role of arts institutions.
"We looked at people in senior positions at other museums who have a demonstrated history of leadership. We looked at people who have a degree in art as well as an MBA [Master's of Business Administration]," said the board's president, Douglas Hamilton. "We also intentionally left the door open for up-and-comers like Julia. She has excellent academic and institutional credentials, a strong history of community outreach, and a collaborative leadership style.
"But, in the end, what impressed us is that Julia has that X factor. It's not all that easily quantified or defined, but when it's there, you can't miss it. There's a vibrancy about her."
By selecting a candidate who they think possesses great potential, but who has never shepherded a museum through a strategic plan, the board was making a bold — and high-stakes — choice.
The Walters is stable financially and operates its $14 million budget reliably in the black. A free-admission policy instituted in 2006 increased attendance, from 133,000 to 165,000 visitors annually.
But it's only in the past 30 years that the museum — which grew from a collection that William and Henry Walters began assembling in 1861 — has started treating the public as a valued client instead of an interruption in the work of studying and preserving ancient treasures. And, it's only in the past decade that the Walters has started to rethink its passive role as a repository of pretty things, and instead become actively involved in tackling a broad range of cultural issues.
Now, the board has signaled a desire to further engage local residents, many of whom have never stepped inside the Walters.
"I know Gary well, and Julia is the perfect choice to succeed him," said Amy Meyers, director of the Yale Center for British Art, and Marciari-Alexander's former boss. "Both have large personalities, and a gift for making art engaging and accessible to the public."
It's too early yet to know what specific plans she'll have for the Walters, but Marciari-Alexander emphasized that she'll seek suggestions from everyone from museum staff to non-visitors.
"Everyone who comes to the table," she said, "has something valuable to share."
Marciari-Alexander studied at Wellesley College, New York University and Yale University, where she earned a master's and a doctorate. She said she has been aware since childhood of the Walters' reputation for having an effect on the art world disproportionate to its size.
"As an art historian, there are museums that you learn about very early on in terms of great collections and commitment to scholarly publications, and the Walters was one of those institutions," she said.
"I learned about it even as a small child. But I really became a big fan of the Walters when my husband was an assistant professor at Loyola University from 1999 to 2002. My husband made his students go to the Walters and the [Baltimore Museum of Art], so I got to know the collections fairly well, and also the people who are here."
At the time, Marciari-Alexander was working at the Yale Center for British Art, so the couple shuttled back and forth between two homes: one in New Haven, Conn., and one in the Broadview Apartments in Roland Park. She became friendly with Bill Johnston, who at the time was the Walters' curator of 18th- and 19th-century art, and William Noel, the museum's curator of ancient books.
Meyers said that she has known since Marciari-Alexander was a graduate student "that one day Julia was going to be in a leadership position.
"Even when she was very young, she was thinking at a strategic level," Meyers said. "For example, in 2002 she organized a very important exhibition for us, 'Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II.' Not only was it a major piece of scholarship, Julia was thinking on all these different levels.
"She thought about how to make the exhibition accessible to the general public. She thought about what educational programs should be developed for our local schools. She thought about crafting institutional relationships in a very sophisticated way that would create visibility internationally for the Center."
Though the Walters has nearly twice as many objects in its collection as the San Diego museum — 33,000 in Baltimore in 2011 as compared with the current, 17,000 objects in the California museum — in other respects, the institutions are about the same size.
The Walters has a budget of more than $14 million, an endowment of $92 million and 165,000 visitors annually. The San Diego museum has a budget of $12 million, an endowment of $72 million and 250,000 visitors annually.