Arts & culture, Film, People, Profiles, Visual arts

I’m a Berkeleyan: BAMPFA director Julie Rodrigues Widholm: ‘Art is life’

Art, in all its forms, taps into a fundamental sense of what it means to be human, says Widholm, who joined the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in fall 2020

Portrait of Julie Rodrigues Widholm

Julie Rodrigues Widholm became the director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in fall 2020. (BAMPFA photo by Jesse Meria)

“For me, art is life. There’s no separation — art is about life. Art reflects every aspect of human existence. I think it’s a moral imperative to open up museums to the entirety of our communities in a way that hasn’t been done in the past.

My father was a Portuguese language specialist for the U.S. Army, so I moved 11 times as a child all over the world. I loved it. I went to kindergarten in Brazil and then came back to the states and lived in several states across the country. In junior high, I went to Mozambique. My first three years in high school were in Portugal, and I spent my senior year in Stuttgart, Germany. I think my travels and international experiences made me interested in culture, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that I began to identify visual art as something that I really loved.

Julie's family stands together with mountains in the background

Julie (front) stands with her parents, Richard and Lisa, and her younger sister, Kathryn. As a child, Julie moved 11 times with her family all over the world. (Photo courtesy of Julie Rodrigues Widholm)

My maternal grandmother came from an artistic family — she loved modern art and would give me books on Matisse. She loved Agnes Martin. Her cousin is Hassel Smith, the San Francisco abstract expressionist painter. She kind of gave me permission to like modern and contemporary art.

I went to graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I studied modern art history, theory and criticism. I interned at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where I ended up working for 16 years as a curator. I developed an interest in working with women artists because I noticed that they weren’t getting as many opportunities, and also Latin American artists were of interest to me, as well. And then in 2015, I became a director at DePaul Art Museum at DePaul University, and I was there for five years.

I would say, throughout my career I’ve kind of looked at the margins to see who’s not being brought into the center and asked, ‘What can I do to bring those voices and experiences and artists into museum spaces?’

When I accepted the position to become the director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in the fall, I couldn’t believe I was going to move across the country during a pandemic. But it was such an exciting opportunity — to take a very strong, highly recognized program and sort of shape it, I would hope, into one of the leading academic art museums of the 21st century. So, I thought, ‘Let’s just do it.’ And, fortunately, my family was on board to join me in this adventure.

Julie stands in a forest in Chaves, Portugal

Julie in Chaves, Portugal, during Easter vacation in 1992. “I think my travels and international experiences made me interested in culture,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Julie Rodrigues Widholm)

I’m interested in being very purposeful and intentional about who we give space and resources to. I want to give a platform to a much broader and diverse group of artists. I’m also interested in facilitating intergenerational, intersectional and interdisciplinary conversations between artists, so that the museum is a highly relevant site that connects us to what’s happening in our world today.

Then, I’m also thinking about our core mission — to be a space for teaching and learning and research — and figuring out how to create a space that bridges the university and the communities surrounding the university. Right now, I’m still trying to understand the lay of the land, you know, asking, ‘What is the social and cultural history of Berkeley? Of the East Bay, of Alameda County?’ The Black Panthers in Oakland, the farm labor movements in the region, the disability rights movement in the ‘60s — all of that informs the context and what’s relevant and what resonates here.

My goal is that we’re fearless in our programming and rigorous in our collecting to make this knowledge and to rewrite the future of our history, to change the direction of our history from a very strong European lineage to a much broader set of narratives that reflect global art.

So, I plan to pursue that, as well as build on the existing strengths of the museum’s collections to include historical Asian art, conceptual art, Bay Area artists. The new bequest we got from Eli Leon of 3,000 quilts by African American artists is amazing. That’s a cornerstone for the collection that I will use as a kind of springboard to collect and program the work of Black diaspora artists even more. Then, I continue to have a strong dedication to bringing Latinx artists, U.S.-based artists, into our museum spaces and doing more work around that.

People have been making art for thousands of years, and it does tap into a fundamental sense of our humanity and what it means to be human at a certain moment in time.

I feel like art museums are amazing spaces to confront the unfamiliar. There’s no right or wrong way to approach artistic expression. It’s up to the viewer to make meaning and find meaning — or not find meaning — in a work of art. I don’t love everything I see. I don’t think it’s all mind-blowing, but I do find it educational. I always learn something. Art is another form of communication about how another person is existing in the world. Some people like to read, some people like to listen to music, some people try to connect with others through different art forms.

At BAMPFA, we offer so many opportunities for dialogue and discussion with the artists and the filmmakers and the kind of behind-the-scenes of making or broader contextualization for understanding. I think that intellectual engagement, having those conversations, is really important to who we are and what we do. During the pandemic, we are offering some incredibly exciting programs online, such as our film retrospective by noted Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai that starts Dec. 11.

In my work, I seek to connect people. That’s ultimately what I’m trying to do — to build bridges, to connect people, to foster greater understanding. I consider myself sort of a humanitarian curator, especially in contemporary art, but, you know, all work is contemporary, at some point. People have been making art for thousands of years, and it does tap into a fundamental sense of our humanity and what it means to be human at a certain moment in time. And art is an expression of that — of what it means to be human in all shapes and forms and beliefs and artistic materials. And that’s fascinating to me, because people are endlessly fascinating and complicated.”

Learn more about the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.