Julie Rodrigues Widholm assumes role as new BAMPFA director

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A Chicagoan, an art historian, a researcher — no, this is not the closing scene of “The Breakfast Club,” but rather a short selection of titles for one Julie Rodrigues Widholm. This year, the former director and chief curator at DePaul Art Museum is extending her biography even further, recently adding “Director of Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive” to her rolling synopsis.

Succeeding Lawrence Rinder, who previously held the director title for over a decade, Widholm is keen on bringing systemic change to the modern museum industry. And while her work at BAMPFA isn’t the genesis of her impact, it surely is the promising start of her West Coast journey.

“UC Berkeley and BAMPFA is a dream job for me,” Widholm said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I’m still kind of pinching myself that this really happened.”

Widholm spent her undergraduate years at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign majoring in art history and political science, later receiving her master’s degree in contemporary art from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While she is excited by UC Berkeley’s reputation in research, curiosity and intellectual rigor, it is BAMPFA’s international and local mission that she is ready to have a hand in defining.

“An academic art museum, to me, is also a very special place where we can really model and innovate and think about what truly a 21st century art museum looks like,” Widholm said.

Like the many community members who appreciate BAMPFA’s presence on campus, Widholm said it was her time spent volunteering at her undergraduate university’s Krannert Art Museum that directed her eventual career path. 

After working an assortment of post-graduate roles at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, she made her directorial debut at the DePaul Art Museum, where she spent five years putting “this young museum on the map.”

“I’m very proud of the work we accomplished at DePaul Art Museum because we were such a small staff (with) very modest resources, but the work we did was important,” Widholm said. “It felt like no excuses — no low budget was going to stop us from doing the work that we felt deeply compelled to put out into the world.”

Last year, Widholm was named Chicagoan of the Year in Museums for her continued curatorial prowess and leadership, as well as her work in diversity, equity and inclusion. Widholm ultimately strives to “create space,” inviting marginalized artists to participate in the creation of modern museum culture.

“Seeing how museums now are doing the work that I have felt all along was important is also kind of gratifying,” Widholm said. “I feel like we had a sense of what needed to be done and we were just doing it, and now the bigger museums are also starting to realize that this change has to happen. We can’t continue the status quo for museums. … I think we’re going in the right direction.”

The reliability and transparency of exhibitions is “extremely important” to Widholm, who noted how museums have historically upheld the colonial practice of collecting objects from around the world. As many institutions are navigating this problematic reality, Widholm hopes to open a conversation engaging both museum professionals and attendees. 

“Museums are held to public trust, and we need to prioritize accuracy and truth and facts in our projects,” Widholm said. “I do think there’s space for dialogue and questioning — and also questioning ourselves as collecting institutions with the histories that we have.”

Given the limitations of museum operations due to shelter-in-place orders, it’s a challenging time to be a museum director. 

But Widholm believes now is the time to rethink the purpose of museums and start fresh. Putting aside the traditional ways of working, she wants to see how BAMPFA can best serve the local physical community and greater digital world.

“There’s no separation between art and life,” Widholm said. “I think art is an essential facet of human existence. … It can be documented, it can help us understand, it can help us collectively experience what’s going on, it can provide a respite, it can educate us — there’s so many ways that it nourishes us in a time, especially when we’re just feeling distraught or confused. It can certainly bring us together.”

Focusing on larger structural questions and taking decisive action in the face of crisis, BAMPFA’s new director and chief curator has her work cut out for her, to say the least.

But, after 23 years in Chicago, Widholm seems to have found her place in the East Bay, already hiking at the Point Isabel dog park and trying out the best Thai food spots. Being a museum director may be what brought Widholm to Berkeley, but at this rate, “Bay Area local” may also find its place on that growing list of titles soon enough.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.