Curatorial Maverick

By Katie Morell

Julie Rodrigues Widholm, photographed at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, where she is the new director. (Hillary Jeanne)

Julie Rodrigues Widholm is ready to make her mark on the Bay Area art scene, championing diversity and inclusion. 

Julie Rodrigues Widholm laughs — and then cringes just a bit — when recalling her journey into the art world after graduating with her Master of Arts in Art History, Theory and Criticism, Contemporary Art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“The summer after college, I needed a job and ended up working as a temp at a large corporate firm; I’m pretty sure I was the assistant to an executive assistant,” she says. “I’ll never forget getting scolded for not wearing pantyhose one day and thinking: Get me out of here. Thankfully, soon after that, I was offered a position at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

The gig worked out for Rodrigues Widholm and her star continued to rise, leading to a 16-year curatorial career at the MCA. In 2015, she got a call to lead the DePaul Art Museum, on the campus of Chicago’s DePaul University, and jumped at the chance, spending the next five years completely revamping the museum into a world-class destination, increasing attendance by 40 percent.

Just as news of the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting the airwaves, Rodrigues Widholm received another call: this one for an open director spot at the acclaimed University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. One hundred and thirty-nine years old but sporting a flashy new building on the western edge of the Cal campus, BAMPFA posed an opportunity too good for Rodrigues Widholm to pass up.

She began the interview process in early March, participating in more than a dozen Zoom calls due to travel restrictions. “The fact that they felt it was import-ant enough to hire a director — even during this difficult time — showed they really cared about the museum,” she says.

Rodrigues Widholm also sensed attractive similarities between Chicago and Berkeley. “There’s the social justice activism [in both places], openness to talking about political issues, innovation, not being afraid of difficult conversations [and] the spirit of ‘let’s try that,’” she says. “And then, the roots and history of BAMPFA are amazing — showing artists so early in their careers, rewriting the narrative of art history — and the film archive is impressive and world renowned. I felt this opportunity was a bigger platform to continue my work.”

The work that Rodrigues Widholm has become best known for is around diversity and inclusion in the arts — a cause she is possibly most passionate about. Upon arriving at DePaul in 2015, she set out on a course to expand the museum’s already-interesting exhibits by bringing in more historically marginalized artists, specifically from Chicago.

“I really felt like the art history of Chicago hadn’t been fully told,” she says. “It started with talking about this issue, holding myself and the team accountable, committing resources to these communities and making tough decisions. Over time it became part of the way we approached all of our work and public programming, from thinking about our balance of exhibitions to questions around the number of women doing solo shows to looking at where we can make an impact and putting ourselves in that position.”

The BAMPFA building, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, opened in 2016 across from the UC Berkeley campus. (Iwan Baan)

This focus led Rodrigues Widholm to the studio of Brendan Fernandes, a Canadian contemporary artist of Kenyan and Indian descent who lives in Chicago and is known for his work around visual art and dance. Upon meeting, she immediately felt a connection — both spent parts of their childhood in Africa (she, in Mozambique, as well as countries in Europe and South America, plus numerous U.S. states, alongside her military family), and both have a specific passion for art that pushes boundaries and poses questions.

DePaul had a collection of around 200 African objects at the time, all from the 20th century, but Rodrigues Widholm wondered how to fold them into a contemporary program. That is where Fernandes came in. From September to December 2018, his exhibition titled The Living Mask was on display at the DePaul Museum of Art to wide acclaim. The exhibition highlighted the fact that most masks stem from West African traditions, and most come with dances.

“But when I thought about how the continent has been pillaged,” says Fernandes, “I conflate the ballet body — the Western standard of dance. I wanted to give the objects back a body. To reinstate a body back into the mask. We see many objects in African collections, but we don’t see them move anymore. I was looking at the lost body of the African dancer.”

In addition to static objects such as photos, sculptures and neon lights, The Living Mask included live dance performances by ballet trainees from the Joffrey Academy of Dance, official school of the Joffrey Ballet, marking the first collaboration between the museum and Chicago’s renowned ballet company.

Rodrigues Widholm brings the same rigor, critical thinking and focus to her new role at BAMPFA, saying she’s excited to create more access to the museum’s large collection. “I want us to be a hub for lifelong learning for the visual arts,” she says. “There is so much potential for family programs and for art lovers of all ages. I’m excited to be a bridge from UC’s campus to the entire Bay Area, and I think that means asking the tough questions, being self-reflective and bringing the community in to have that dialogue with you.

For now, BAMPFA is offering a wide array of online offerings from film screenings to live streamed concerts to online conversations with artists and curators. At press time, Rodrigues Widholm is keeping her “fingers crossed” that the museum will be able to reopen with a limited schedule come early December. But even remote, Fernandes is excited about what Rodrigues Widholm will bring to BAMPFA. “Julie is a Latinx, curatorial, feminist maverick,” he says. “She is trying to create visibility for us — people of color, queers, transpeople — and challenge the scope. She has the perfect voice to do that. She also creates a supportive, caring environment, not just for artists but also her staff. She infuses her work with a real sense of care. I’m sure she will take this position on and bring a new perspective to the museum. I think it is going to be amazing.”

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