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Walker Art Center’s new director thinks “Spoonbridge and Cherry” is “a masterpiece.” But you’re more likely to find Mary Ceruti sitting in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with the women of Mark Manders’ “September Room,” a piece so contemplative it comes with its own chairs.

An artist’s study of the work hangs in her office, scrawled numbers encircling the bronze sculptures’ split heads.

Ceruti’s brain might look similar, a place where big ideas float. She loves the way a sculpture inspires those ideas, sparks questions. Sometimes people feel intimidated by modern art, unsure whether they “get it,” she said.

“Often, I come upon a work and I don’t get it, either! But I’m curious enough to want to know more about it, to engage with it and spend time with it.

“What we should be doing as an institution is sharing our own curiosity,” she continued — something that the Sculpture Garden does almost effortlessly. “If we can bring some of that feeling into the building, that’s going to make people want to be here.”

Sculptures have shaped Ceruti’s career. She comes to Minneapolis after two decades as director and chief curator of SculptureCenter in the New York borough of Queens, where she molded a small but trendsetting museum with an eye for overlooked artists.

But even as she staged inventive exhibitions, Ceruti was seen as more serious than splashy. Artists and peers describe her as “responsible,” “conscientious” and “capable.” They agree that Ceruti transformed Sculpture­Center — but note that transformation’s “thoughtful pace.” Its “smart, well-scaled” renovation. Its “steady” focus on women and artists of color.

“I always thought Mary was really serious about what she did, avoiding the pitfalls of the glitzy part of the art world,” said Laura Raicovich, former director of the Queens Museum. “And that’s really what we need right now at a lot of our bigger institutions.”

SculptureCenter “has the same ethos as the Walker but on a smaller scale,” said Siri Engberg, the Walker’s senior visual arts curator.

The Walker post offers Ceruti, 54, a bigger, broader platform. Minnesota, along with the international art world, is watching to see what she does with it. She’s going from a staff of 14 to 150. From an annual budget of $2 million to $20 million. From 6,500 square feet of gallery space to 40,000. From no permanent collection to 15,000 works.

If she could make Sculp­tureCenter into a quiet force for groundbreaking artists, what might she be capable of at the Walker?

The first public hints will come this fall, as Ceruti hires a chief curator and announces the results of an open call for the garden’s newest sculpture. That process was launched after the controversy over “Scaffold,” a work modeled partly on the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Minnesota, which protesters argued was offensive and picked without conversation with American Indian communities.

Cultural centers are grappling with flash-point moments such as these, said Raicovich, a curator and writer. The question isn’t whether they’re savvy enough to avoid them, but “are we using these moments as opportunities to delve into the changes needed to make our spaces more equitable, to make them more inclusive … to make them more meaningful to a broader population?”

Ceruti has the strength to ask those questions, Raicovich said, and the humility to get help in answering them.

Bringing the world to Queens

It was a job that, as she once put it, “nobody else wanted.”

SculptureCenter was a relic, stuck in clay and bronze. An artist friend on the nonprofit’s board warned Ceruti: “It’s a terrible job. ... But at least it would get you to New York.”

Not long after arriving in 1999 from San Francisco, she started looking at real estate, convinced the center should sell its deteriorating building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and relocate to an up-and-coming neighborhood.

She liked Long Island City, just across the East River, because MoMA PS1 was luring visual arts fans there. “It’s already on their map.”

Her realtor kept showing her the expected properties, so she took off on her own, walking around the neighborhood, drawing concentric circles around PS1, until she came upon an old trolley repair shop.

The moment Ceruti stepped inside, she knew. “It was the most perfect building.”

Persuading the nonprofit’s board to settle in a still industrial, still unknown corner of New York City was tricky. But Ceruti was patient.

“To move it from 69th Street to a much bigger space in a new area seemed impossible,” said artist Petah Coyne, once called "the queen of sculpture" by Artforum Magazine. “She had to do it with grace. And she did — she did.”

The new location allowed Ceruti to reinvent the center’s programs and ambitions. “It shifted everything,” she said.

At first she was “terrified” about what the nonprofit could add to a packed arts landscape, but “it became obvious that actually, New York at the time was very New York-centric. They weren’t working with artists internationally.”

So SculptureCenter did, bringing in artists well-known in their home countries, while showcasing lesser-known U.S. talents.

Today, artist Rashid Johnson is a big deal, with dozens of solo shows and an HBO film. But when SculptureCenter organized an exhibit of his work a decade ago, he was “still in that kind of dreaded space” the art world refers to as “emerging,” he said by phone. “To give me a solo exhibition at that time was to definitely to take a chance on an artist who wasn’t at that time significantly vetted by the art world.”

Ceruti worked hand-in-hand with Johnson as he prepared for the exhibition. He found her to be “humble” and “generous,” the type of director who “really appreciates the fact that these institutions rest on the shoulders of the artists.”

She also made sure those artists reflected the diversity of the community. He predicted she’d do the same at the Walker.

“As a woman director of an institution — of which there aren’t as many as you would hope — Mary’s invested in fostering an environment that is as inclusive as it can be.”

A ‘nice shift in tone’

For years, the Walker’s focus has been physical. The new, renovated entrance, the revamping of the hillside, the Sculpture Garden makeover.

What got “a little neglected,” said Philip Bither, senior curator of performing arts, was “the resources needed to have those places animated — i.e., programming.”

The first time he spoke with Ceruti, he made that argument. “I barely had to even say that when she said, ‘Yes, I completely understand that.’ ” In this conversation and others, Ceruti proved to be “really thoughtful and open and not defensive,” he said, making staff feel comfortable speaking their minds.

At an all-staff meeting in July, Ceruti talked about joy. On her list of priorities for the next year: “Promote and model curiosity, creativity and enjoyment through visitor experiences, our interactions with each other and with artists and colleagues.”

“There’s been this really nice shift in tone,” said curator Engberg. The center had been without a director for more than a year, without a chief curator for several years. There were holes in other key spots. “That’s not easy on a staff,” Bither said.

Ceruti’s predecessor, Olga Viso, left the Walker in December 2017, months after the dismantling of “Scaffold.” She acknowledged mistakes in buying and erecting the work — and the Walker has made changes since — but the center’s board appreciated Viso’s response to that controversy, said John Christakos, board chairman and co-founder of Blu Dot. “I thought she handled it openly and courageously and compassionately.”

But the board was concerned about “staff turnover and staff morale,” he said. Under Viso, there had been “higher turnover in some of those senior positions than is ideal.”

So during the board’s yearlong search for a new director, a must-have was the ability to attract and keep top talent.

Christakos has been struck by Ceruti’s “disarming straightforwardness.” In a rarefied field with intimidating subject matter, directors can be “highfalutin,” he said. “But I have found Mary to be welcoming and real. … She has all the chops without any of the attitude.”

Onstage and off, Ceruti is warm and personable, more likely to wear white than black, to carry her lanyard in her hand than to bother with a purse. Her face is framed by silver streaks that she blames, good-naturedly, on bankers reluctant to finance the new SculptureCenter site. She laughs often — a throaty, slightly dorky laugh.

“She has this great Midwestern feel about her,” said Coyne, the sculptor, “like she has all the time in the world for you.”

Ceruti and her five siblings grew up in Cleveland among art. Her father was an architect, her mother a fiber artist.

In the living room of their home sat a Florence Knoll couch. (“Which we all complained about because it wasn’t very comfortable.”) In the refrigerator were bottled solutions her mother used to dye yarn. (“She would collect goldenrod on the side of the road.”) In the playroom stood a full-size loom. (“Art-making was always around.”)

She took an art history course in high school that went beyond slides, exploring the galleries of the Cleveland Museum of Art. After earning philosophy and art history degrees, Ceruti returned to Cleveland, where she waited tables and took art-making classes. But she knew she was better at asking questions about art than creating it.

While serving as program director at the Capp Street Project in San Francisco, an experimental art space, she earned a master’s degree at night. Capp Street got her working with artists as they created large-scale installations, a sensibility that carried over to SculptureCenter — and now the Walker.

Artists she’s partnered with are popping up as the center decides what to buy and show.

“It’s very nice to see we’re all speaking the same language,” Engberg said. “And she’s bringing new ideas to the table.”

How to eat a caterpillar

The camera eyes the sculptures, circling and studying them. One sits on a glass table, almost floating. Another is unwrapped by gloved hands.

In the 12-minute film “The Maid,” artist Carissa Rodriguez observes Sherrie Levine’s crystal and black glass “Newborn” sculptures in private homes and public spaces — questioning how we encounter and collect art. Rodriguez created the film for a SculptureCenter show that was “absolutely pivotal” in her career, she said.

Now that film will be part of the Walker collection. It “fits,” Ceruti said, since the Walker owns a “Newborn” piece.

Ceruti often notes her excitement about the Walker’s collection, which has been shaped by its directors’ close relationships with artists. In an interview, she emphasized the importance of investigating the collection’s “oversights,” adding works by women and underrepresented groups.

“That said, I’m skeptical of these sort of big grandiose gestures: ‘We’re going to sell a Rothko to buy 10 pieces by women of color.’ Like that changes anything,” she said, referring to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s announcement that it would auction off a color-block painting by Mark Rothko. “It’s a big gesture, and gestures can be important. But it doesn’t actually change the collection.

“I guess I’ve always been: It’s more important to walk the walk.”

Ceruti arrived in Minnesota in January, posting a pair of photos on Instagram: “Bedroom views last week and this week.” In the first, a brick building and a skyline. In the second, a snowy pond lined with trees.

Mary’s daughter, who’s going into eighth grade at Wayzata West, was born in New York but had never been a city person. For her 13th birthday, the family and friends from New York tooled around Lake Minnetonka in a pontoon boat, then biked around the lakes.

“That sounds like a very Minnesota weekend,” said Walker board member Simone Ahuja as she and Ceruti, rosé in hand, chatted before a July lecture.

Ceruti sat at a front table for the night’s talk, by cookbook author and restaurateur Sean Sherman of the Sioux Chef. As he spoke, she leaned forward, her chin resting on her folded hands. After an hour, Sherman asked the crowd for questions. Ceruti immediately raised her hand, then quickly lowered it. Instead, she waited as people asked about food and fundraising, seeds and history.

Then, only after others had the chance, Ceruti raised her hand again.

“There’s so much to talk about,” she began, “but because we’re at the Walker, I want to go to the aesthetics question and introducing the unfamiliar to people.

“I think about having kids eat bugs. That’s a huge thing! We struggle with introducing challenging art to audiences,” she continued as the crowd laughed. “But as the mother of a 13-year-old … I mean, I can get a lot of people to look at a lot of different art. But I can’t imagine getting my child to eat a caterpillar.

“So I’m curious about how you think about introducing the unfamiliar to people.”

As Sherman answered, she listened.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna