Julie Decker describes her vision as new Anchorage Museum director

Mike Dunham
Julie Decker is the new Director / CEO of the Anchorage Museum. Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013.
Bill Roth
Julie Decker and her husband Mike Morris and kids Jack and Annika Morris in their hillside Anchorage home on Sunday, January 20, 2013. 130120
Bob Hallinen

Julie Decker was not yet born when the Anchorage Museum opened its doors in 1968. This month she became its new director and the third person to head the institution since its founding.

"I grew up with this place," she said in an interview at the museum this week. "My high school prom was in the atrium; I got married in the atrium." And Decker is an artist as well as an administrator -- some of her work is in the museum's collection.

It's a long way from showing a painting in a gallery to running the largest cultural center in the state, a public facility with an annual budget of $10 million. But in retrospect, one might say it's the job she was destined for.

Decker's earliest and most consistent memories are of Anchorage, the museum and art. Born in Kenosha, Wisc., her family moved to Anchorage in 1971 when she was 2 years old. Her father, Don, taught art in the Anchorage School District.

Art "was in the background of everything" in the Decker household, she said. She was always meeting painters and sculptors and going to shows. When the show happened to be of her father's work, she and her sister were "part of his delivery crew, helping him set it up."

More important, perhaps, was absorbing how her father looked at things.

"What was really formative was being around someone who was curious all the time," she said. "He was always forcing us to look -- at buildings, in alleys, waking us up at 2 a.m. to see the northern lights. And he was making stuff all the time."

Nonetheless, she didn't think of art as a career. When she went to college, she opted to major in political science.

"I took an art history class just as an elective and found that I liked it," she said. "Then I took a drawing class. I resisted it at first, but I found it challenging in ways that nothing else was. It was dangerous and risky, which was probably good for me."

She earned a master's degree in arts administration at Golden Gate University in San Francisco and a doctorate in contemporary art history, criticism and management from Union Institute and University in Cincinnati. She then came back home, where the museum put her in charge of its annual children's art exhibits. She curated those shows for 12 years.

With her father, she owned the Decker/Morris Art Gallery, which, before closing in 2004, often featured cutting-edge work. Contact with the gallery's exhibitors helped inform her first book, "Icebreakers," something of an encyclopedia of avant-garde artists working in Alaska in the last half of the 20th Century.

"I saw this incredible community of artists from an era that was passing and that we had very little documentation of it. And there was this perception that Alaska had no contemporary art," she said. Carefully researched and filled with beautiful photos of the art, "Icebreakers" went a long way toward addressing both of those concerns and remains a valuable reference.

Finding balance

Decker's most recent position at the museum was as chief curator and director of exhibitions, a job that required her to juggle several disciplines across the various departments of the facility. When John Pepper Henry left the post of director this summer, she was named the interim director while the Anchorage Museum Association -- the nonprofit group that manages the city-owned museum -- launched a nationwide search for a new CEO. At the end of the day, they picked the home girl.

Decker was plainly delighted to get the job. It's a testament to her ability and experience, but also her dedication to the museum. "In all honesty, they couldn't have found anyone who loves this place more than I do," she said.

The job comes with responsibilities that go far beyond hanging pictures on walls. The Anchorage Museum's mission includes history, science and culture in addition to art.

"It's unusual for a museum to have four areas like that," she said. "The biggest challenge for me is to balance those things."

Her solution is to look for connections between the disciplines. The children's exhibits, for instance, always had a science component. "Science, art and history are embedded in everything we do," she said. "We need to be concerned less about divisions and more about concepts."

That thinking is behind the Northern Initiative, a multifaceted international program she acknowledges as her "baby." It brings together artists, scientists, anthropologists, historians, decision-makers, influencers and other "thought leaders" in exhibits, discussions and projects focusing on life in the north. Different presentations are happing at sites around the world, with conferences in Iceland, Finland and England. Northern Initiative presentations in Anchorage include a symposium on Arctic deserts planned for next August and the "Qanga" exhibit of Greenlandic graphic novels now on display at the museum.

For many Anchoragites, the most visible manifestation of the project to date was the "Light Brigade" happening on Sept. 21. Music and dancers filled the grounds in front of the museum. Light show images were projected on the side of the building. Aerialists came off the roof and rappelled down the sides.

The theme of the event was to draw attention to the shift in daylight so prominent in places above 60 degrees latitude and, in a way, to celebrate it.

"We need to remember that we're not just a museum anywhere," Decker said. "We need to remind ourselves that we are a museum in a very interesting place."

Well-loved, well-used

The Anchorage Museum is also a place with built-in managerial issues that Decker has to balance along with its aesthetic and educational objectives. The building requires constant attention; the atrium is due for refurbishment, the oldest parts of the structure are going through "invisible upgrades" for heating and similar functions, the hands-on Imaginarium component gets a lot of wear and tear.

"It's very well-loved and very well-used," Decker said. "And we need to think of how to bring something new in there every year."

The major capital improvement of the moment is the 15,000-foot Alaska History display on the second floor. It hasn't really been updated since it was installed in the 1980s, Decker said. The history ends with the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

"We're going through a complete re-imagining of that section," she said. "The whole second floor will see a re-do. One of the big items is, how do we deal with the last 35 years?"

The re-do will cost an estimated $15 million, she said, of which $10 million is presently in hand.

Though the history section and Native Alaskan displays from the Smithsonian Institution -- also on the second floor -- are the big draw for out-of-state visitors, Decker says the museum cannot thrive merely as a tourist attraction. "We're still a community center for local people," she said. "That's the audience we need to serve."

Upcoming exhibits include "Gyre," a classic Decker melding of science and creativity that casts the eyes of researchers and artists on the problem of ocean-borne debris. There's also a show featuring Legos, the toy building blocks that have become popular with architects and artists.

"We have to plan our shows five years in advance," she said. "When you're working that far out, the problem is, how do we stay relevant?"

In the case of artists, she hopes the museum will become a greater resource that helps them link up with other artists and experts in-state and Outside, as well as the community in general. The Northern Initiative approach is one way to facilitate that.

"I've seen this constant revolution of crops of young Alaska artists that emerge here, make a change in the scene, then run out of opportunities," she said. A big solo show is nice, but it's a matter of a moment, she said, not something that makes a difference over a period of time.

"I want to bring artists here in a very active way," she said, "researching, talking with people, making connections in-state and internationally with events, having conversations. The museum is well-poised to do that."

Decker said she keeps working on her own art, even with the new job and family responsibilities. She lives on the Hillside in a house full of work by modern Alaskan artists with her husband Michael Morris, three dogs, two cats and two children.

"I have very little time for my own art now," she said. "But I cling to it. It's an important connection I have to the creative process. It keeps my perspective fresh.

"It's how I stay sane -- or insane. Sometimes I'm not sure which."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.