Julie Rodrigues Widholm,
museum in “New Age,” according to DPAM.
But another part of it was the nerve struck by the show’s examination of how the 1960s and ’70s New Age movement lives on and finds new threads in the work of current artists, said Widholm.
“It really resonated with sort of a younger generation who are really interested in tarot and astrology and kind of making sense of the world post-Trump,” she said. “I really think the timing was perfect.”
The show came out of Widholm’s long-standing curatorial philosophy of being out in the world, visiting with artists, seeing what they make.
In recent years, she said, “I had been observing in artists’ work these references to sort of New Age aesthetics and philosophies. And so we had an opening in the schedule, and I just determined, now’s the time. Let’s just do it.”
The show also fit with a another one of Widholm’s hallmarks, “a deep commitment to diversity and inclusion,” as she put it in the museum’s most recent annual catalog. “In 2018/19, our exhibitions featured primarily artists of color, women and LGBTQ artists.”
Part of that commitment stems from having seen so much of the world herself. Widholm grew up an “Army brat,” she said, living 11 places in 20 years, including Georgia, Indiana, Kansas and California in the states, and Mozambique and Brazil overseas. Her high school years were spent in Portugal and Germany.
She entered college at the University of Illinois planning to become a cultural attache in the State Department. But the art appreciation she learned in a high school course, and from art books given her by a grandmother, took hold, and she finished with a double major in art history and political science.
“I just really got involved and fell in love with museum work,” interning at the school’s museum, she said. “For me, contemporary art in museum spaces became a space where international affairs and culture came together.”
Graduate school at the School of the Art Institute followed, and then a 1999 one-year research assistant job at the MCA led to her being hired there full time as a curator and rising through the ranks, as Darling put it.
A highlight there, said Widholm, was co-curating the haunting first career retrospective of the revered Colombian artist Doris Salcedo. “Her work is so germane to art history, to the current political moment, to aesthetic conversations,” the curator said as the 2015 show prepared to open.
“She was just a really great colleague and just a really even-keeled person and very caring, but also willing to share her frank opinion on things,” Darling said. “She has a really good bedside manner with artists, which is of course a key part of the job. And I think she just does a really good job of getting out into studios and seeing artists and having a real empathy for what they’re doing.”
When the opportunity at DePaul came up, it seemed the right fit at the right time, especially because the position allowed her to also hold the title of chief curator, said Widholm, who lives in Oak Park with her family.
DePaul’s is, she pointed out, the city’s newest art museum, “and as a 21st century museum, we are in a position to question traditions and practices within museums, especially as an academic art museum to sort of bring our audiences in with us as we question, OK, how have museums done things in the past? … Historically museums’ foundations are kind of as colonial institutions and supporting a kind of white patriarchy. So for us it’s a matter of tapping into the mission of the university at large around helping marginalized populations and communities. Giving them greater visibility is at the core of what we’re trying to do.”
She’s enthusiastic about a March show, curated by the University of Florida art museum, that caught her eye, “The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene.”
“And I’m really excited about our fall 2020 season where we’re turning over the entire museum to Latinx and Latin American holdings from the collection,” she said, which will begin a “multiyear Latinx initiative” meant to address a gap she and her staff have identified in art museums across the country.
“I just can’t underestimate what a privilege it is to be able to lead an art museum, and I take it very seriously,” she said. “I really think that we have to be intentional and mindful about who’s getting space in our cultural institutions.”
For the 2019 Chicagoans of the Year, the Tribune asked each recipient the following questions about the decade of arts in Chicago:
Q: Looking over the past decade, what was the most important event that impacted the Chicago arts scene?
A: Art Design Chicago (the yearlong 2018 event that sponsored dozens of exhibitions and public events related to the city’s visual arts legacy).
Q: Looking forward to 2020, what is the most critical issue that needs to be addressed in the arts and what person or institutions are best equipped to have an impact on that issue?
A: All arts institutions need to address issues of equity and inclusion in a meaningful way so that our institutions remain vibrant and relevant. More specifically, I believe we all need to give more space to intersectional Latinx artists and experiences which have been marginalized for decades and will shape the future of our country.
DePaul Art Museum Director Julie Rodrigues Widholm.