Walker Art Center hires New York curator as its new boss

November 13, 2018

Walker Art Center, which has been without a director for nearly a year, finally put someone in the driver’s seat Tuesday: Mary Ceruti, who transformed New York’s tiny SculptureCenter into a quiet force in contemporary art.

When she reports to work Jan. 28, Ceruti will become only the sixth director of the Walker since 1940, and the third consecutive woman, succeeding Olga Viso, who resigned amid turbulence after the “Scaffold” controversy.

Ceruti will be stepping way up in terms of size, from a staff of only 14 at her Long Island City, N.Y., nonprofit to more than 200 at the Walker.

“I think there are some learning curves, but I know that she can scale up,” said longtime colleague Adam Weinberg, director of New York’s Whitney Museum. “Mary is somebody who really believes in doing things for the long haul. Number one is that she understands it will take time to build a program.”

In a phone interview Monday, Ceruti called it “an extremely exciting opportunity” — in part because of the debate launched last year when the Walker faced protests over “Scaffold,” a sculpture modeled in part on the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato after the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. The Walker agreed to dismantle the work and turn it over to Dakota elders — a move that ignited controversy in the art world.

“I think the Walker did a lot of thinking and talking and engaged with a lot of communities,” said Ceruti. “And I think for me walking into that, we are really well positioned to taking these issues head on, which are some of the most important issues we are facing as a culture.”

Reputation as artist-focused

During the past 20 years as executive director and chief curator at the SculptureCenter, Ceruti focused on supporting innovative work in sculpture and fostering a wide range of artists, both emerging and internationally-known.

Her connection to artists is what “sets her far apart from others in that position,” said Fred Wilson, an artist on the SculptureCenter’s board of directors. “She understands our needs, sees our brilliance when others may not, and gives us unwavering support for our quest to create the ‘new.’ ”

Ceruti said she is committed to bringing a global vision to the Walker.

“I have been working internationally my whole career, and I think there is a lot of activity in cities that we don’t think of as art capitals yet but will soon, such as places in Asia, South America, and Africa,” said Ceruti. “I think our global understanding is already expanding, and I think the Walker is positioned to further that.”

Viso left the Walker in good shape from an infrastructure standpoint, having completed a renovation of its campus and a makeover of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden last year. That will leave Ceruti free to focus on programming.

“I am excited to build on that interdisciplinary character of the Walker’s programming — it’s not just that visual arts and performing arts and design coexist in the institution but also [that they] cross-pollinate,” she said.

At the SculptureCenter, Ceruti brought in a variety of artists, ranging from well-known international names like Swiss-born artist Ugo Rondinone and Turkish artist Ayşe Erkmen to younger American artists such as LaToya Ruby Frazier. Her global vision is apparent also through her work in the 2013 Venice Biennale, co-curating Iceland’s pavilion.

But she is also engaged in what’s happening locally. In West Queens, where she lives, she serves on advisory boards at the local YMCA and the Long Island City Partnership Board. “I think there’s a role to play as a community leader, both culturally and representing the cultural organizations in larger civic conversations,” she said. “That’s something I have been doing as long as I have been in New York.”

Lately, she said she’s most passionate about artists who are exploring “what we don’t yet understand,” such as emerging technologies, biotech influences, and where the body ends and artificial intelligence begins.

“Artists are developing knowledge in ways you can’t come to in other forms of experimentation and that other fields don’t,” she said. “You can get to something through art that you might not be able to get to through science or other scientific methods.”

Before she stepped into her role at the SculptureCenter, Ceruti worked for eight years as a curator at the international artist-residency program CAPP Street Project in San Francisco. She previously worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a curatorial assistant.

Sculpture queen

In the Twin Cities, Ceruti will be right at home with the curation of sculptural artworks. After all, Minneapolis is something of a haven for large-scale public art, with the Walker-curated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and a new work, “Nimbus,” coming to the Nicollet Mall this month.

“I’ll be walking on the mall soon enough!” said Ceruti.

She “is a person who will really connect with the various communities” in Minnesota, said Whitney boss Weinberg, who formerly was the Walker’s education director. “She will understand what is there and its history, but also build on that history — that’s new and fresh.”

One key difference between Ceruti’s current post and her new one is that the SculptureCenter is a non-collecting institution, while the Walker owns more than 14,000 artworks. During Viso’s tenure, the percentage of artists of color in the collection rose from 7 percent to 10 percent, and works by women increased from 20 to 22 percent.

“The collection is really strong relative to American and European art of the last 50 years,” she said. “I think it is one of the best. So I think what I will be looking at is, not what are the holes in that history, but how do we want to look at that relative to culture production now?”

Ceruti joins a handful of other female museum directors in the Twin Cities, including Kaywin Feldman at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Lyndel King at the Weisman Art Museum and Kristen Makholm at the Minnesota Museum of American Art. “It says something that the Walker has this history of appointing women because that is unusual in the field,” said Ceruti.

The incoming director said she doesn’t yet have a vision for the Walker. She is still in the process of planning the move to Minnesota with her husband, Jack Hecker, who works in the wine industry, and their 12-year-old daughter Adelaide, who she said has never really been a city person.

“I look forward to meeting the Walker staff, board and local community members over the next few months,” said Ceruti. “My future plans for the Walker will be developed in response to and in dialogue with that process, but at this point I can say that they will build on the Walker’s incredible reputation as a catalyst for experimentation and creative expression.”

@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437

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