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In Baltimore, the Walters Art Museum confronts the Confederate history of its founders

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. (Walters Art Museum)

The Walters Art Museum has long celebrated the generosity and artistic tastes of founders William T. Walters and his son, Henry, industrialists who settled in Baltimore and amassed a world-class art collection. But in the wake of the national reckoning around social and racial justice, the city museum has broadened its founders’ biographies to include their support for the Confederacy and connect their wealth to the South’s legacy of slavery.

The expanded history can be found on the museum’s website and is included in the installation “Building the Collection: 19th-Century European and American Art.” It will be on view when the museum reopens Wednesday after being closed since November because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The new history is part of a broader effort to increase diversity, equity and inclusion, according to executive director Julia Marciari-Alexander. Being transparent about the museum’s past, said Marciari-Alexander, will help it build relationships going forward. The majority of Baltimore residents are Black, and the museum needs to be transparent about the work it is doing to change, she added.

“You have to acknowledge something before you address the trauma it has created,” Marciari-Alexander said.

The approach embraces the complexity of the museum’s founders and their times, she added.

“In some ways, Henry Walters viewed himself as a progressive,” she said. “When we look back at what that means, we ask, ‘Can you be a great philanthropist in your time and be a racist?’ Absolutely. That’s something we as a field need to approach.”

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The Walters is the latest art museum to grapple with difficult histories. Museums in Mississippi, Oklahoma and Alabama also have examined their pasts, and several have presented related exhibitions.

“It’s important to acknowledge why some of our citizens don’t have positive feelings about the museum. They haven’t historically felt welcome here,” Graham Boettcher, the director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, said Monday. “At the very beginning of our history, because of Jim Crow laws, we were failing a huge portion of our population by refusing them admission other than one day a week.”

Boettcher gave a virtual lecture last month, “Confronting an Ugly Past, Building a Beautiful Future: The Legacy of Jim Crow at the Birmingham Museum of Art,” that dug into the segregation laws in place when the museum opened at City Hall in 1951.

“There’s a long history of exclusion and violence,” he said. “We feel a collective desire to take on the history, be honest and transparent about [it], and use it as a way of opening doors to a more inclusive present and future. Skirting the issue, or pretending there never was an issue, is not the right way of doing that.”

But revising an institution’s history is just the beginning, Boettcher added.

“The big question,” he said, “is how does it contribute to the type of present and future you want? That’s the hardest part. It’s much easier to do the research about your past. Using what you’ve learned to affect the present and future takes daily work.”

Last summer’s protests for racial justice sparked more conversations and influenced the Walters’s decision to act, Marciari-
Alexander said.

“It hastened our pace, and happily we were ready to hasten,” she said. “This work doesn’t happen overnight. It’s thinking about not just what diversity looks like, but how do you ingrain it? It’s something that the board cares deeply about.”

The private collection that evolved into the Walters Art Museum was started by William T. Walters and expanded by his son, who gave the 22,000-piece collection and two buildings to the city of Baltimore when he died in 1931. The museum opened in 1934.

In addition to including details about the family’s collecting, the museum’s revised history reveals that William Walters (1819-1894) established a liquor wholesale firm and a railroad company and later invested in other transportation companies. During the Civil War, he used his wealth to oppose the Union, including helping to organize a protest against Union troops, known as the Pratt Street Riot. After the war, he commissioned a Baltimore statue of Roger B. Taney, the chief justice of the United States who delivered the majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which found that Black Americans could not be U.S. citizens.

Upon his father’s death, Henry Walters inherited the businesses and art collection. In 1909, he contributed funds to the United Daughters of the Confederacy for a monument in Wilmington, N.C., honoring George Davis, the attorney general of the Confederate States.

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In addition to exposing the Walters’s Confederate leanings, the museum connects the family’s wealth, and thus their art collection, to slavery.

“William and Henry Walters participated in creating, promoting, and perpetuating oppressive social, economic, and political structures with legacies that continue to create inequity and inequality today,” according to the museum’s account. “Their wealth came from businesses, initially in distilling and marketing liquor, and later in railroads and banking. Through these enterprises they depended on and profited from Southern economies based in slavery and its legacies.”

The Walters initiative also examines how its founders’ worldview influenced the art collection that forms the core of the museum’s holdings. Part of that is to drop the adjective “encyclopedic,” a term that reflects a biased and Eurocentric view of art, Marciari-Alexander said, and one that she finds limiting.

“I’m excited for our field,” she said of efforts to confront the past. “I hope it will mean more people will feel welcome.”

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