The Walker Art Center, which has been without a top boss for nearly a year, filled its director’s chair Tuesday, hiring 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 controversy over its 2017 “Scaffold” exhibit.
Ceruti will be stepping away from a staff of 14 to head 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 of American Art. “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, 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 both criticism and applause.
“The Walker did a lot of thinking and talking and engaged with a lot of communities,” Ceruti said. “And I think for me, walking into that, we are really well-positioned to take these issues head on, which are some of the most important issues we are facing as a culture.”
With the Walker having completed a renovation of its campus and a makeover of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Ceruti will be free to focus largely on programming.
During 20 years as executive director and chief curator at the SculptureCenter, Ceruti, 53, fostered a wide range of artists, some emerging and others internationally known.
Her connection to artists is what “sets her far apart from others in that position,” said Fred Wilson, an artist on the center’s board of directors. “She understands our needs, sees our brilliance when others may not.”
Former associate Frederick Janka, who now runs the Carolyn Glasoe Bailey Foundation in Ojai, Calif., praised her “sensitivity — she is not the egomaniac that some curators are.”
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.”
Lately, she’s most passionate about artists who are exploring “what we don’t yet understand” — emerging technologies, biotech influences, where the body ends and artificial intelligence begins. “You can get to something through art that you might not be able to get to through science or other scientific methods,” she said.
At the SculptureCenter, Ceruti brought in well-known names like Switzerland’s Ugo Rondinone and Turkey’s Ayşe Erkmen as well as younger Americans such as LaToya Ruby Frazier. She co-curated Iceland’s pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
“She is a visionary and a leader but has both her feet on the ground, which is one of her great strengths,” said Icelandic artist Katrin Sigurdardottir, whose work was featured there.
But Ceruti also is engaged in what’s happening in Queens, where she lives and works, serving 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.
The SculptureCenter is housed in a former trolley repair shop that Ceruti spotted in Long Island City, just across the East River from Manhattan.
“You are so lucky to have Mary,” said Petah Coyne, an artist once called “the queen of sculpture” by Artforum magazine. “She is such a wonderful, warm, engaging person. She will bring an incredible energy.”
Ceruti showed a resourceful streak while Coyne was trying to hang works in the SculptureCenter’s two-story-high space for a 2005 show. “We were running out of time and I was getting really agitated. Mary goes, ‘Why don’t we get some of the mountain climbers in New Paltz [an upstate New York destination for climbers]. I bet they would love to come and do this.’
“They were scaling the walls, going up and down — this to them was practice. We had the rest of the thing put up in two days that would’ve taken us a week. I thought: ‘How great Mary Ceruti’s brain works!’ She thinks out of the box.”
A native of Cleveland, Ceruti spent eight years as a curator at Capp Street Project, an international artist-residency program in San Francisco, while earning an M.A. from San Francisco State.
She joins a handful of other female museum directors in the Twin Cities, including Kaywin Feldman at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “It says something that the Walker has this history of appointing women because that is unusual in the field,” Ceruti said.
One key difference between her current post and the new one is that the SculptureCenter is a non-collecting institution, while the Walker owns more than 14,000 artworks.
“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?”
The incoming director said she doesn’t yet have a vision for the Walker. She is 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,” Ceruti said. “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.”