A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

Curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm’s Chicago Legacy

By KT Hawbaker (MA 2017)

For nearly two decades, Julie Rodrigues Widholm’s (MA 1999) laser focus on elevating artists whose work is often underrepresented in museums helped to shape Chicago’s contemporary art community. As a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and director and chief curator of the DePaul Art Museum (DPAM), she exhibited a deep commitment to diversity and inclusion, showcasing countless women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC artists. She also has a remarkable passion for Chicago, elevating local artists­—­including Hương Ngô (MFA 2004), kg (MFA 2007), Barbara Jones-Hogu (BFA 1964), and Brendan Fernandes, among many others. In everything she does, Rodrigues Widholm demonstrates art’s power to provoke, inspire, and transform.

Image courtesy of Whitney Bradshaw

Now, Rodrigues Widholm has headed west. After helping DPAM reach record attendance, she’s stepped into a new role as director of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).

As she embarks on her new challenge, Rodrigues Widholm spoke with us about the political power of curation and institutional collections, and how museums should evolve in response to the pandemic.

KH: You didn’t grow up in the art world. How did you land in curation?

JRW: As a senior in high school, I was planning on attending NYU and was picking out my dorm when my father decided to leave the army and take a job in Illinois. He convinced me to go to the University of Illinois at Champaign—probably because he was paying for it. So, I started my first year in U of I’s fine arts program but knew that I was not an artist. I quickly transferred out to art history and political science. I loved international affairs and thought I was going to be a cultural attaché in the State Department because that felt familiar to me.

But, while I was at school, I became a volunteer-slash-intern at the Krannert Art Museum. That’s where I learned about curating. I discovered my passion for contemporary art in museum spaces—it was as if all of my interests came together, and I knew “This is where I want to be!”

KH: So, you’re majoring in art history and cutting your teeth at the Krannert. What comes next?

JRW: As an emerging curator, I knew that I wanted to be organizing exhibitions and began to explore what kind of degree I’d need to get a job. At the time, I saw that I’d need a master’s degree and began looking at programs.

KH: And that’s where SAIC came in.

JRW: I chose SAIC because they were one of the few—if not only—contemporary art history theory and criticism programs. I wanted to focus on contemporary art exclusively, and they would allow me to do it.

KH: You’ve created your career around contemporary art. What is it about contemporary art that interests you?

JRW: It’s urgent—it’s about life today, it’s very international, it’s political, it’s really addressing some of the biggest concerns of our time. And, you know, I like the weird stuff. I like the work that challenges and pushes. I love modern art, too, but I’m really interested in how contemporary art allows us to engage with difference.

KH: Is this also what drew you to curation?

JRW: I’m fundamentally very curious. I love learning through the eyes, experiences, and research of artists. I love providing a platform for artists whose ways of being or making aren’t represented in other institutions. I curate to fill in the gaps.

KH: You're also a well-known advocate for Chicago artists. Why is this a central part of your career?

JRW: It goes back to my earlier work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and their 12X12 series. For 10 years, part of my job at the MCA was to curate a monthly series of exhibitions that presented a different Chicago-based artist and their new work. I had a real purpose and desire to connect with the community.

In terms of my own art historical revisionism and my work to expand the canon, I think about whose work needs to be supported. It’s women, it’s artists of color, it’s LGBTQ artists, and it’s Chicago artists. Chicago artists are absolutely under-recognized. My curatorial work is about feeling personally connected to the community, but it’s also for art history’s sake. It’s about connecting deserving artists with people all over the world who should know about their work.

KH: Do you consider curation an activated form of artistic preservation?

JRW: Yeah! It’s documentation, it’s scholarship—I very much feel that what I do now has an impact now but will also have an impact in 50 years. Because if we don’t write about these artists now, many of them will be lost to history.

KH: Pivoting over to the pandemic. How should museums approach a moment like this? 

JRW: I think museums need to approach this as an opportunity. Now is the time to rethink our core missions, audiences, business models, and values, but also to slow down and innovate.

KH: How do you think this pandemic will change arts institutions in the grand scheme of things?

JRW: I am hopeful that this will begin a new era of collaboration, partnerships, and accessibility, and new ways of thinking about why museums matter and how to care for them and the people who bring them to life. It will also encourage institutions to think about how to creatively maximize limited resources.

KH: Tell us about your new role at BAMPFA. Why did this feel like the next right step?

JRW: As the director of BAMPFA, I’ll be responsible for the overall artistic vision and management, which means overseeing exhibitions, film screenings, acquisitions and collection management, research and interpretation while also exploring new ways in which art, film, and other media can intersect and be presented to the university campus and public audiences. The BAMPFA collection contains more than 20,000 art objects and 17,500 films and videos, which is incredible.

I am very excited about continuing the work I started at DPAM around expanding the canon and transforming museum culture to be more accessible and inclusive on a larger scale.  

KT Hawbaker (MA 2017) is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an arts journalist. They cover Chicago’s visual art and theater communities while writing longer features on LGBTQ+ lives and femme healthcare. A former employee of the Chicago Tribune, their other bylines include the Reader, Render Food Mag, Bustle, and Artforum.