Julie Rodrigues Widholm interviewed in Crain’s Chicago Business

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Photo by Lizabeth Applewhite

Can a new director make DePaul Art Museum a major player?

by Lisa Bertagnoli, published in Crain’s Chicago Business Sept. 17, 2016. 

Can Julie Rodrigues Widholm make DePaul Art Museum a major player in the art world in this town?

Widholm, new director and chief curator at DePaul, is off to a good start. In May, she snagged 114 works by 59 Chicago-area artists from collector Chuck Thurow. On Sept. 24, the museum will claim the Northern Trust Purchase Prize, a gift of art exhibited at Expo Chicago. Widholm and Dia Weil, a university trustee, will select the piece from Expo Chicago’s Exposures gallery, a forum for emerging artists.

The gifts are helping Widholm make DePaul a showcase for artists based in Chicago and those from underrepresented regions and demographics. That niche, she says, will help the museum gain must-see status.

“There is such a deep and talented pool of artists in Chicago,” says Widholm, 41, who joined the museum in August 2015 after 16 years as a curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. There she assembled some 50 shows, including the 2015 retrospective for Doris Salcedo, the first for the Colombian sculptor. “Our institutions can never provide enough opportunities to work with them, showcase them, give them opportunities to grow as artists.”

To increase the focus on Chicago art, as well as on female artists and others from underrepresented spheres, Widholm has hired Mia Lopez as an assistant curator and Laura-Caroline Johnson as collection and exhibition manager.

An emphasis on local work “is an incredibly important gap in terms of the art collections of the city, someone really looking at Chicago art in-depth,” Thurow told Crain’s in August, when news of his gift was made public. “That’s not the MCA’s or Art Institute’s mission.” Thurow declined to disclose the appraised value of the donation.

Overall, Widholm plans to build a collection that spans from the modern era to emerging artists and include international art as well. “It’s important to integrate Chicago artists into several histories that run parallel with each other,” she says.

Widholm has the art to make that happen. Now she needs the money. “Funding is a top priority,” she says.

The museum gets about $500,000 a year from the university, which has an annual budget of about $500 million. A small endowment gives Widholm $25,000 a year to acquire new work. Grants help, too: $15,000 from Alphawood Foundation will underwrite “One Day This Kid Will Get Larger,” a show opening Jan. 26 in which emerging contemporary artists of color explore issues concerning AIDS. DePaul Art Museum stages four to six exhibits a year, each for three months.

 - DePaul Art Museum

DePaul Art Museum

A few million dollars extra would enable Widholm to hire a full-time education and outreach director, and boost marketing and advertising as well.

The museum opened in 1987 in a single room in McGaw Hall on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus, then moved to the university’s library in 1992. It is now housed in a three-story, 15,000-square-foot space on campus and draws about 12,000 visitors a year. An outreach director could plan programming to draw more people, especially locals, to the museum, says Widholm, who has a master’s in art history, theory and criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“We are very much a place to build a community—programming is a key way to make people feel welcome,” she says. “Studies have shown that art museums are a social experience. People go to hang out.”

Widholm will launch a private-donor initiative, the museum’s first, in the next few months. She is also building an advisory board and an alumni board, and plans a director’s circle of major funders.

To date, Belverd Needles and his wife, Marian Powers, have supported the museum mostly with gifts of art. “I don’t see why we couldn’t be successful in raising money,” says Needles, EY distinguished professor of accountancy at DePaul, who has been involved with the museum since the mid-1990s. “It’s not the MCA or the Art Institute, but we have a beautiful building, a highly motivated staff, university support and successful graduates,” he says.

Widholm’s MCA background will help her court the donors she needs to catapult DePaul Art Museum into elite territory. “When you’re a curator for a major institution like the MCA, you build up community credit,” says Tony Karman, president and director of Expo Chicago, which opens Sept. 22 at Navy Pier. Widholm has a reputation as “an able, smart, effective curator, a wonderful person to work with,” he says. “That’s why doors are opening.”

DePaul hired Widholm to “take (the museum) to the next level,” says the Rev. Ed Udovic, vice president for teaching and learning resources at the university. Widholm replaced Louise Lincoln, who retired after 17 years.

Lincoln “professionalized the operation,” cataloging works and organizing what was once chaos, Udovic says. She also oversaw the new building, which opened in 2011 and cost $7.8 million. University capital funds covered the cost.

All in all, that’s a good foundation for Widholm to build on. “I have this vision that people think of us as part of their daily life,” she says. “If you’re walking home, you just pop in.”