Sixteen months ago, the former director, Gary Vikan, announced he was stepping down after 18 years at the Walters' helm. Vikan was in many ways a visionary, so the news whipped up a gust of consternation and the sense of excitement and possibility that accompanies any change.
When the board of trustees announced last February they had selected Marciari-Alexander, a rising star who hasn't previously headed up a museum, the uncertainty intensified.
"What will Julia's imprint be on the Walters?" asks Robert Mintz, the Museum's chief curator. "We don't know yet. We're asking that same question."
Marciari-Alexander, who started full-time at the Walters last week, says she's been training for this job since college. But for the next few years, at least, her vision of the Walters will remain a work in progress.
So, the 46-year-old scholar, administrator and mother of two allowed a reporter to follow her around during her first full-time week. A meeting with senior staff, a phone call with a trustee and a tour of the museum itself yielded a few preliminary sketches of how the Walters of the future might appear.
Sketch 1: a landscape, "Expanding Horizons" Outside, it's a sultry 87 degrees. Inside, Henry Walters' former home, a Renaissance Revival-style rowhouse, the air conditioner – or is it just a fan? – is trying. At 10 a.m. lastMonday, Marciari-Alexander walks into the room where six members of her senior staff members are waiting. She's wearing a short-sleeved tan shirtdress, and not only is she not sweating, she immediately reaches for the coffee.
Marciari-Alexander compares taking over the helm of the Walters as a novice director to her experience as being a new parent and having twins. As she once put it:
"Being a first-time parent is always a shock, no matter how prepared one thinks one is, but having twins is another thing altogether.
"When John and I looked at our friends who had had one baby and then had two, we were very glad we 'didn't know any better.' It allowed us to dive into twin parenthood without preconceived notions of how things should be. We just embraced the challenges as opportunities and went with it."
The Walters is known internationally for its medieval collection, while two miles north on Charles Street, the Baltimore Museum of Art specializes in modern paintings and sculptures.
So it's noteworthy how often contemporary art pops up during the Walters' staff meeting. There's a progress report on two shows planned during Vikan's tenure:
An exhibit just opened featuring the six finalists for the Sondheim Artscape Prize. This is the first year the show has been held at the Walters, not at the BMA.
And in September, a small exhibit will open of the Genesis series by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. Marciari-Alexander tells her staff some good news: the paintings' owners, Eddie and Sylvia Brown, have agreed to extend the length of the loan.
"We need to increase our holdings," Marciari-Alexander says one day over lunch. "That's the bottom line. There's a lot of assumptions that may not be true about what the Walters collects and what it does not. William and Henry Walters collected what they liked, and they bought art that was contemporary in their day.
"That doesn't mean we're going to start collecting a lot of contemporary art. But, we are going to think about how our holdings can and should be grown."
As soon as Marciari-Alexander moved into her new office, she replaced Vikan's commanding wooden desk with one used by Henry Walters — smaller, gilded and with exposed Queen Anne legs.
At 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Marciari-Alexander is seated behind the French desk, a shoe dangling from one foot as she talks to Walters trustee Rosalee Davison about a tea they may throw for donors. Marciari-Alexander mentions one couple who recently did the museum a big favor by helping with a future exhibit.
"I'm the new girl in town, and I'd like to develop my own close relationship with them," she says. "It's not so much about bringing them back into the fold – they're already in the fold – but in igniting a new interest in the museum."
Nine-year-old Jack teases his mom that she refers to everyone she meets as "friend," whether Marciari-Alexander is referring to the mayor or a store clerk.
Of course, no one likes everybody, and Marciari-Alexander is no push-over. But she absorbed leadership lessons from her father, the former president of California's Pomona College and who was instrumental in integrating the Rhodes Scholarships. She begins relationships by assuming they'll go smoothly and be mutually beneficial. It's up to the other person to prove her wrong.
In person, Marciari-Alexander brings to mind a Valkyrie. She's 6' tall with long blond hair, blue eyes and a confident stride. One day she wears flats, and another day, wedge sandals with three-inch heels. She neither tries to minimize her height nor to emphasize it: It's just a fact, part of who she is.
Her physical presence is so striking that someone meeting the director for the first time must make a conscious effort to ignore her looks and concentrate on what she's saying. The upside for her is she's not easily forgotten.
Derrick Cartwright was Marciari-Alexander's boss at the San Diego Museum of Art. He remembers bringing his deputy curator to a meeting in a poor, mixed-race neighborhood during her first week on the job.
"It's a risk bringing new colleagues into that environment and expecting them to perform," Cartwright says. "There's a lot of legitimate frustration in the community that museum officials only go out once to make an appearance. But Julia kept coming back. She made a commitment to building trust."
Over time, a community center was constructed. Marciari-Alexander found a donor who footed the bill to make one room climate-controlled to museum standards. She persuaded the San Diego museum to lend about ten artworks to the community center for six to eight months.
It's possible the Walters could launch a similar initiative here and lend some treasures to Baltimore community centers. But Marciari-Alexander doesn't believe in opening an off-site, satellite museum. The goal of any outreach program, she says, will be to lure new visitors into the Walters.
"We will track how many people these programs bring through our doors," she says. "It's all about the museum."
Sketch 3: a still life, "Re-imagining the Permanent Collection"
At 4 p.m. Wednesday, Marciari-Alexander strolls through the museum with her husband and the twins. She shows Jack the sweat hole at the chin of a Samurai helmet from the 18th or 19th century. Beatrice, known as Bebe,pulls her mother toward a display of elaborate hairpins.
Marciari-Alexander tries to walk through some portion of the museum every day. "What do you like best?" she asks people she meets in the galleries. "What do you like least? How could we make this more interesting for you?"
When Marciari-Alexander's appointment was announced, one detail leaped out at the museum staff — her scholarly background is in British art. Marciari-Alexander is the first non-medievalist to head up the museum since 1965.
That might seem trivial. But as Mintz put it:
"These worlds are very specific and they attract people with particular temperaments."
Medievalists tend to be very serious, but they're deeply invested in social culture," he says. "Usually they don't know who the artist was, so they create installations showing how objects were used. British European curators are very concerned with pedigree and provenance."
It's telling that one of the Marciari-Alexander's first requests to her staff was to re-read two histories of the Walters written by retired curator Bill Johnston and former trustee Stanley Mazaroff.
So, it's not surprising that one of her priorities will be to emphasize the museum's 35,000 item permeant collection, possibly by creatively re-arranging the galleries. (In San Diego, the Impressionists were re-located to the second floor, forcing visitors hoping to seethese perennial favorites to first walk through other galleries.)
"People tend to associate art museums with whatever special exhibition they're doing," she says, "which means if the exhibition doesn't interest someone, they don't have to come.
"To me, an exhibition is the punctuation at the end of the paragraph. I want people to come into the Walters at lunchtime to visit 'their' painting or their tiara or their vase. I want to create a community of museum-goers rather than a community of exhibition-goers."
Past Positions: Deputy director for curatorial affairs at the San Diego Museum of Art. Associate director for exhibitions and publications at the Yale Center for British Art.
Birthplace: Memphis, Tenn.
Education: Bachelor's degree, art history and French, Wellesley College, 1989; master's degree in French literature, New York University, 1992; master's degree in art history Yale University, 1993; doctorate in art history, Yale University, 1999.