Q+A: Mary Ceruti Takes the Reins at the Walker Art Center

The new executive director discusses the Minneapolis contemporary art museum’s new direction
Mary Ceruti, photographed at the Walker Art Center

Photo by Nate Ryan

You have to have a vision,” says Mary Ceruti, the Walker Art Center’s new executive director, “but you also have to be constantly adapting the vision to the current context.”

This winter, Ceruti moved from New York City to Minneapolis after 20 years as executive director and chief curator of SculptureCenter, an envelope-pushing Queens museum where she managed a staff of 14. Now, with a staff of more than 200 at the Walker, the native of Cleveland, Ohio, gets to examine multiple disciplines through the lens of contemporary art.

She replaces previous director Olga Viso, who stepped down at the end of 2017. Viso’s departure followed the “Scaffold” controversy in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. A piece evoking the gallows used in a mid-1800s mass hanging of Dakota Indian men in Minnesota was removed and buried after protests from local Native Americans.

Ceruti oversees an open call for a new piece in the Sculpture Garden by a Native American artist, to be installed by fall 2020. Until then, she steps in with a global focus and a reputation for working deeply with emerging, experimental artists.

“I was ready for a new context and a different way of working, thinking about things more broadly,” she says. “The Walker is one of the best institutions in the country—in the world. Specifically, its commitment not just to the art of our time but to living artists is really important.”

To start, how did art enter your life?

I entered its life. My mother was an artist, my father was an architect. There was always an assumption about the value of art and creative activity. With an architect, you’re aware of the built environment and that decisions were made about how a space came to be. And we live in a world of things. So, why not care what it looks like and what it’s made of?

From the contemporary art perspective, someone recently said they thought I was more interested in artists than in art—which, I wouldn’t go quite that far. I was interested in how art existed in our lives and how it came to be. So, I love working with artists, because they’re not beholden to any specific way of working or a method of knowledge gathering. They can reframe questions so different answers appear.

Coming from your sculpture background, what are your thoughts on the Sculpture Garden?

It is iconic not just to Minneapolis but to the field. I love the way it can be a permeable space between the museum and the city. Where the city and the museum meet, the collection is on view, it’s out in the public, people can experience it on their own terms, on their own time.

What is there to learn from the Walker’s call to Native artists?

I like the open-call process because it brings forward work that might not be on any individual curator’s radar. There are many layers of learning, and the commission offers one opportunity with the Native community in particular. I’m guessing that, if Walker curators aren’t familiar with these voices, most of our audience isn’t, either.

What excites you in contemporary art right now?

Art meeting up with other fields of knowledge and discipline. At the moment, artists are grappling with how technology is changing our understanding of materiality and the limits of the body. The Walker exhibition The Body Electric (open through July 21) unpacks and explores some of these questions. Also, how we construct identities individually as well as collectively, related to ideas about gender, race, ethnicity, and communities.

What do you want to carry over from SculptureCenter?

We were committed [at SculptureCenter] to promoting the work of underrecognized artists, most of whom were women and people of color or artists coming from other places that haven’t had U.S. exposure. I’m looking forward not only to working with artists who have not had a central place in the canon but also deepening and broadening the collection in that regard. We were able to work with artists when they were very young and emerging, then years later do solo exhibitions with them. At the Walker, there’s a larger opportunity to work with them in different ways over time, in part because of the [permanent] collection.

In light of “Scaffold,” how have you handled potentially controversial art as a director in the past?

About 10 years ago [at SculptureCenter], there was an artist who is known as a very controversial artist. I still believe he’s a really brilliant thinker and artist, but he wanted to work with the homeless population in New York. This was sort of toward the end of the Bloomberg administration, when the city, actually, seemed like we were doing great. Like, the city was so clean, and you really didn’t see homeless people. But, actually, homelessness was on the rise. We had more people than ever living in shelters.

The artist wanted to make this situation visible in a very spectacular way, and it involved organizing a lot of homeless people. So, my role—I did a lot of research and met with people and organizations who were serving that community, advocating for that community. I was trying to understand what the issues were, what the situation was, how you would go about organizing this group of people.

What you found was sort of an orthodoxy among the people who work with those communities. Not without good reason, they were suspicious of an artist trying to come in and work with this population. They were very protective of their constituents, and I think that’s understandable and right. But it also felt maybe a little patronizing. They weren’t allowing these people the agency that perhaps the artist wanted to give them, in advocating for themselves and being visible for themselves.

So, it was a long process. I think I invested about a year and a half in developing those relationships. In the end, it became apparent to me that SculptureCenter, at our size, and given the artist’s international schedule—that we just didn’t have the resources to do it right. Even though I think the project could have been amazing, I did not have the confidence that we could pull it off in a way where the controversy would be productive instead of destructive. Because I think controversy can be really productive. It’s about understanding what’s possible and where you can be productive and where you need to recognize your own limits.

You’ve mentioned it says a lot for the Walker to have a history of woman directors. What does that say, exactly?

It’s somewhat remarkable that this is remarkable. Women are 50 percent of the population, and there are a lot of women in the curatorial ranks in museums. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that you might end up with three female directors in a row, especially when you’re not hiring directors every four years. I think it just speaks to the Walker being of its time. There are many ways I would argue the Walker is way ahead of its time—I think the multidisciplinary approach was way ahead of its time, like decades. And perhaps hiring Kathy Halbreich in the ’90s was ahead of its time. But now, I think it’s just a matter of being of our time.

You’ve emphasized a global focus. Could you expand on that?

I’ve been working internationally for pretty much my whole adult life. I don’t think there’s a choice about working globally. The world’s getting smaller despite current tendencies toward isolationism. There’s no going back. We’re connected to the rest of the world. At the same time, I think the art world has tended to follow the markets. So, most of the attention has been paid to art on the U.S. coasts and in Europe, and, more recently, in China.

But the Walker has a history of bringing certain international movements to U.S. audiences for the first time. That’s a tradition I very much want to build on. So, I’m interested in what artists are doing in South Asia and Africa and Eurasia, South America. There’s a lot of different art activity around the world that isn’t connected to the formal art world or to the commercial art market.

What difference do you anticipate in a Minneapolis audience versus a New York audience?

We often make the mistake of assuming there’s an audience, when there are always multiple audiences bringing different connections and assumptions to their experiences. But, that said, in New York, because of its scale, different institutions could serve different audiences. That happens to some degree in any-size city. But in New York, because it’s such a big city, SculptureCenter occupied a niche that was about the cutting edge and introducing new artists and ideas to the contemporary art conversation. At the Walker, we need to be thinking more holistically about the institution and ways to inspire curiosity in different kinds of audiences about different kinds of work.

I get a sense from Minneapolis that people are open-minded here. They don’t think they’ve seen it all. They’re willing to experience something that comes from somewhere else. I think that artists will find this to be a welcoming environment, and I’ll do everything I can to make sure that the Walker feels like that.