Julie Delliquanti brings a variety of experiences — in arts education, administration and community engagement — to her new position as executive director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. ArtsATL sat down with the California native, who took over on July 14, to hear her thoughts about the future of ACAC and how her background will influence her tenure.
ArtsATL: Tell me a little about your background.
Julie Delliquanti: My undergraduate degree at California State University Long Beach was in art education, and my intention was always to teach in a public school, which I did, but it was at a time in California when they were cutting a lot of the arts, so I ended up teaching a lot of math. My math classes were awesome because they incorporated a lot of art and were really creative. But it wasn’t what I wanted. I loved being in public schools, but I knew if I wanted to pursue art, I knew I’d have to take a different route.
Eventually I made the decision to go to Boston University, earning a Masters in arts administration. Then I got a job at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2003. I met Ray Williams, who was the director of education. I still consider him my mentor. He’s really been the person that I go to for every decision. He taught me a lot about working with audiences and how you get people to care about artists and their work and why it should be relevant to them — really sort of breaking down these ideas about art as this elitist, insular thing.
ArtsATL: What are your art interests? What do you like?
Delliquanti: Drawing, illustration, collage and photography are mediums that I am regularly drawn to. I am intrigued by scientific drawing and illustration, and particularly the work of artist-scientists such as Ernst Haeckel and present day artist-scientist collaborations. Also, my daughter is a cartoonist and illustrator, so I do enjoy following the work of artists working in both web and print format comics, sequential art and graphic novels.
In no particular order, artists (both living and dead) whose work excites me: Wangechi Mutu, Sol LeWitt, Nick Cave, Tara Donovan, Julie Mehretu, Takashi Murakami, Agnes Martin, Ellen Gallagher, Xu Bing, Gelah Penn, Robert and Shana Park Harrison, Klea McKenna, Abe Morrell, Clyfford Still, William Kentridge, Cy Twombly.
ArtsATL: What have you done since arriving in Atlanta in 2007?
Delliquanti: [I was] associate curator of library exhibitions and director of the Schatten Gallery [at Emory University] where we showcased the university’s collection of photography, books, manuscript materials and ephemera. Emory hadn’t really begun doing that in a comprehensive and strategic way. We had to . . . figure out a way to connect with students, because most people didn’t even know MARBL existed.
I moved to the High Museum in January of 2013 to work in community engagement. I think that’s something that I do well. I like other people’s energy . . . After nine months, I realized culturally it was not the right fit. I felt that what they hired me to do I couldn’t accomplish given the structures and parameters there. I’ve been working with the Decatur Book Festival since I started at Emory where I continue to work now as curator of art|DBF.
ArtsATL: What led you to apply for the position of ACAC’s executive director?
Delliquanti: I think of ACAC as a 40-year-old invisible institution. The space is great, the location is amazing, the potential is huge. I also love the idea that there’s this niche to fill. The High Museum and Michael Rooks can do what they can do within the contemporary art world, and Annette Cone-Skelton at MOCA GA can do what she can do for Atlanta and Georgia artists, but then there’s this huge chasm. We can bring amazing national and international artists to Atlanta to educate and inform our artists and audiences. We live in a city of millions, and I see the same 200 people at every single art event. Why are we not touching all of these other people?
ArtsATL: So do you see education as the missing link in garnering larger audiences for ACAC as well as the art scene here in Atlanta?
Delliquanti: I do. I think the shows in the past have been well-selected and -curated, but if you’re not the type of person who already knows how to interact with art, you don’t know what to do, and ACAC has provided you no support. I think artist’s talks are great, curator’s tours are great, but those people are speaking a language that many don’t know or understand. They don’t get the contemporary or art historical references, and I think that if we’re going to get people to care about the work artists are doing, we have to help them.
That doesn’t mean dumbing the exhibitions down. It means lifting the exhibition audiences up. Some people interpret that as “You must not want us to do intellectually rigorous shows.” But no, I want them to be interesting and difficult and provocative and beautiful, but I think we need to find ways to reach people and get them there.
ArtsATL: So what does that look like to you?
Delliquanti: That’s the hardest question, but it’s the question. First of all, you have to let people know you exist. Very basic things like street signage . . . You need to create [ACAC] as a destination and get it on people’s radar.
But then there’s the question of “What goes on there?” I’ve fielded a lot of telephone calls at ACAC since I’ve been there, and it’s clear that a lot of people don’t know what we do. And I think the misperception is that we fall somewhere between a commercial art gallery and some sort of museum . . . Until people know what we are, we can’t get them to come in and learn anything.
So, I think creating some institutional programming that people can understand, like contemporary talks or programming for teens, things at lunch-time where people can come and spend 20 minutes, have somebody actually in the gallery space where you can talk to somebody about the show . . .
People feel like they have to like everything, get everything, understand everything. You don’t have to like it to be a valuable experience. It’s okay to not like it or get it, but it’s learning to exercise that and to be curious and take that risk, because nobody wants to feel stupid.
There’s not an education person at ACAC. There’s not a public programs person. Those are the things I’m interested in . . . We also don’t have a formalized visitor services staff either.
ArtsATL: How do you envision the relationship between executive director and curator? How independent/collaborative will the curator be?
Delliquanti: My role, as I see it, is to cultivate an environment that provides the room and support to elevate curatorial practice, intellectual and artistic rigor and scholarship, and develop truly original programming and innovative exhibitions. My goal is to build a platform for dialogue, but feed that engagement through generosity and openness and with greater emphasis on developing approaches to experiencing contemporary art for the hesitant or reluctant viewer.
We will launch a search for a new curator who has an independent sensibility and will be bold and brave in their curatorial practice, but who will also be interested and excited about collaboration, with staff and others, especially in the areas of programming and education in support of exhibitions.
ArtsATL: How do you see ACAC existing within a larger cultural and artistic ecosystem here in the city? Other similar cities have more medium-sized institutions with far greater budgets that have farther reach. In Atlanta it’s like there’s the High Museum and then everybody else.
Delliquanti: Right now what I’m trying to figure out is where we fit in terms of who our audience is and how we connect with smaller grassroots organizations. I think about Dashboard Co-op, WonderRoot — organizations that have said smartly, “This needs to be done. We need to do this because nobody else is going to do it.” That’s the great thing about Atlanta — you can just make things happen. But there are limits: there’s capacity and resources and dollars and audiences.
ArtsATL: Running parallel with last year’s renovation, there’s been a resurgence in interest in the institution’s past. How do you see ACAC’s history informing your vision for its future?
Delliquanti: History is powerful, and people respond to that. My goal is to resurrect a lot of the history. To go through the archive that exists, find a way to make it available to researchers and scholars, do a lot of oral histories. There are a lot of artists still living who have showed at Nexus and gone on to have amazing careers. So really putting that into context for people, that will help raise the visibility.
ArtsATL: Where do you see the Studio Artist Program going?
Delliquanti: I would like to see more interaction between the artists and everybody else. I love that we can provide the space at an affordable rate, but I feel like there’s a separation. I would love to see us bring more studio artist work into the gallery space. More open studios.
I’d love to bring in young people and find ways to let studio artists connect with them — look at their space, have a conversation or [see] a demonstration of the artist’s practice . . . The practice part of making the work you never see, and sadly that’s sometimes the most interesting to people.
There’s definitely room for rebuilding that relationship . . . There’s the artists’ studios but then there’s the “Artist Studio Program.” Is it a program, or are we the landlords? . . . It would be nice to think more intentionally about who is there and why we have them there.