Six months into her role as executive director of the Walker Art Center, Mary Ceruti is still focused on learning.
Following 20 years at the helm of SculptureCenter in New York, the Cleveland native has been getting to know a new region, a new art community and a large staff.
Ceruti replaced Olga Viso, who left in the wake of a controversy surrounding Sam Durant’s gallows sculpture “Scaffold,” which offended members of the Dakota community. Ceruti assumed leadership of the museum this past winter after a yearlong search during which the Walker had no executive director and several vacant leadership positions.
Now she’s ready to make her mark.
The Southwest Journal sat down with Ceruti in July. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You were at the SculptureCenter for 20 years. What’s it been like adjusting to a new role and a new city these last six months?
I would say I still feel very new here and I’m still learning a lot. It’s been exciting and invigorating to have a whole new context to be thinking about. I’m learning everyday both about this community and how this institution has worked, is working, what people’s strengths are, what our audiences are interested in. I still feel very much at the beginning of that learning curve.
Coming from the SculptureCenter and having the Sculpture Garden here, what’s your overall impression of the Sculpture Garden? What has it been like working with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in that space? Do you have visions of different types of sculptures you’d like to bring to the park?
The Sculpture Garden is an appealing aspect of this institution. I think it’s a huge asset. It’s a way of putting our art out there. Having collections spill outside of the building, it creates sort of a zone that is the Walker collection and reflective of the kind of work the Walker collects and is interested in but is also super accessible. And that’s exciting. I think that permeability for that to be a zone to introduce people to that experience is really, really important.
As it turns out the Park Board has a new superintendent, Al Bangoura, and we’ve met several times now. I think we’re both looking forward to what we can do in the park.
We’ve just opened this new commission [“Shadow Spirits at the Crossroads” by Seitu Jones and Ta-coumba Aiken] and I think that’s a really interesting example because the way it uses the pathways is different and it’s in many ways more narrative. They’re anti-monuments, you might say. They are referencing historical figures and honoring them in a way a monument would, but they’re much more gentle and I would say participatory because you can discover them as you wander through the park. They kind of emerge as you experience the garden.
Currently there is no artistic director at the Walker. Is that a position you’re looking to hire for?
I am in a search right now for that position. Exactly what that title will be and what the responsibilities will be is still a little bit in flux. The search is for a position called the chief curator and deputy director of curatorial affairs. That person will be a very close partner to me in defining the artistic direction and vision for the Walker as well as helping manage the curatorial staff and being quite hands-on in making sure the curators are in direct conversations with each other. I think there’s the artistic vision side and then there’s more of a management side. My background is as a visual arts curator, so I have ideas about what that vision looks like. The key is finding a person who aligns with that and has their own ideas that can really push me in doing the best in my role.
What are you looking for in exhibits? Are there any movements or trends in contemporary art right now that you want to bring the audience here?
There aren’t single movements I would say. I think there are a lot of artists thinking about the most urgent questions: how we live sustainably, how we understand each other, how we construct and negotiate identities individually and collectively. I think those are questions and concerns that artists are thinking about, and that we as citizens of the world need to be thinking about. So, I’m interested in that.
At the same time, we are an arts institution. We are an art museum. We’re not a humanities center, so I’m interested in pursuing these ideas with artists who are either masters of their craft or pushing their artistic and disciplinary practice into new directions, furthering the field of art as well as asking those questions. I think those things have to go together.
As a center where communities in the Twin Cities can explore these ideas and artistic traditions, our job is to be really rigorous in thinking about how an artist fits into art history as well as connecting to the contemporary moment. That’s the key, right? A really good artist is thinking about what they’re doing in terms of the most urgent questions.
As someone who came in the wake of controversy around the Scaffold exhibit, were there any big takeaway lessons for you?
I think that the Walker leadership was very upfront about how much learning happened in the wake of that, which to me is really exciting. It’s important for museums, and all institutions, to understand their relationships and responsibilities to their communities and to see that how we go about what we do has to change. I think the big takeaway from that particular experience, which has been talked about at length, is that we need to be in better dialogue with our communities. Not just the Native community but all kinds of audiences and communities, both I think to be responsive and meet them where they are while also leading the conversation.
We have curators, and not just of the visual arts, but I’d also like to point out we also have a really strong performing arts program, a moving image program, an educational program. We have some people who have spent their lives looking at art and traveling the world. They have a lot to offer us. They have a lot to share. I think what we want to do is bring that back and develop programing that’s more informed about what our community is thinking about.
I think that was the big lesson and honestly the entire museum field is learning that lesson at the same time. The Walker, I think, is not unique in sort of misstepping but also learning about what kind of role we can play. But I also think because of that controversy we’re a little further ahead than other institutions. Not to say that we don’t have a lot of work to do. We have a ton of work to do.
And I think that being without a director, or an artistic director, for several years, has actually impeded a lot of progress that a lot of people are well aware needs to happen but hasn’t had as much traction over the last couple years. I would like to say that in five months I could have made a lot of progress on that but it’s actually exactly where I need to spend a lot of attention to understand where we are and who in the community is interested in what we’re doing, who might be interested that’s not currently. What would that look like? Those are things that I’m super excited about.
How do you maintain that balance and connection to the local community when you’re trying to be an international art institution?
Getting to know Minneapolis and the Twin Cities, one of the things I’ve really enjoyed and been heartened by is I find people here quite open-minded. Of course, there are local concerns and local issues, but I think that they’re also interested in what’s happening around the world. I think when we are thinking about what work we’re choosing from around the world, we have to think about what aspect of that work is going to resonate with the local audience. What has resonance here? If there’s some really amazing artist collective working in Southeast Asia, what is it about that is going to connect to something that is happening in this community.
Do you think free Thursday nights and free first Saturdays are a good way to expose a new audience to the Walker? Is that a valuable thing that you guys want to continue doing?
Absolutely. We need to lower the barriers for people to engage with the art. So free Thursday nights, free first Saturdays are super important. Right now, I think it’s 73% of our audience comes for free, between those nights, various programs and school events.
Does that make you interested in lowering admission costs or having more of those days?
It’s an active discussion, I would say. I think there’s interest for sure in pursuing a free admission policy. The trick is trying to figure out how to financially make it work. Even though it’s only a little more than a quarter of our audience that’s paying, that still adds up to a significant chunk of money that we have to find elsewhere. If there’s a donor out there who would like to endow that, that would be great. I would like nothing more than to make this museum free all the time.
With events like Rock the Garden and mini golf on the roof, do you think those are good ways to bring people into the museum?
I do. There are things that make the museum accessible in different ways and if something like mini golf brings in an audience that’s coming to the Walker for the first time and people can find something they enjoy about it and wander through the Sculpture Garden or come into the galleries, that’s great. Whatever gets someone into the space to have an encounter, great.
There’s nothing wrong with art being fun.
What do you see as the Walker’s role as being part of the neighborhood?
I think we always want to be good neighbors and good citizens of our community. To the extent we have resources to deploy, which maybe means a meeting space that we can make available to people, I think that’s part of our role.