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Deep ties to Anchorage, the North, animate new museum director

Suzanna Caldwell
Julie Decker, new director of the Anchorage Museum. She was formerly the chief curator. Tara Young photo

It's hard to miss the passion that new Anchorage Museum Director Julie Decker has for the place she's now in charge of.

Let her tell you about growing up in Anchorage and making frequent trips to the space. She moved here in 1971 when she was 2. She came to the museum on school field trips and to help her dad -- well-regarded artist and educator Don Decker -- carry paintings into the museum for his shows. She had her high school prom at the museum. She did a college internship there. She even got married there. Since 2011 she's been the chief curator, in charge of creating and executing numerous exhibitions.

Now Decker is hoping all those experiences will help her as she begins her newest role with the museum -- CEO and director.

“I know where (the Museum has) been and hopefully where it can go,” she said. “I have great ambition for this place.”

But Decker's love goes beyond the superficial. She's passionate about the North -- exploring those voices and what it means to be northern in time of great ecological and cultural change.

Much of that will come through Decker's Northern Initiative -- a series of public events, exhibitions and artist residencies that explore key issues facing the North and the people who live in it.

“We're not just any museum, we're a Northern museum,” she said last week. “(The Anchorage Museum) is in an interesting place in terms of Arctic issues. That the rest of the globe is paying attention to this place is something we need to take notice of and recognize.”

Nationwide search

Evan Rose, vice chair of the Anchorage Museum Association, said the group took finding a new museum director very seriously. Working with an international search firm based out of San Francisco, m/Oppenheim, Rose said the group looked both in and outside of Alaska.

“We needed an honest search out there,” he said. “We needed to really do a good job.”

A handful of candidates were considered, including two interviews done in Alaska. But the hiring committee couldn't get over Decker's competitive background coupled with passion for the place.

“Her enthusiasm for the museum is what really took it over the top,” Rose said. “She really wants this job, she really wants to do this.”

Decker admitted that long ago she made a conscious choice to stay in Alaska.

“I had an opportunity to be jaded about this place and rejected that wholeheartedly,” she said. “I made the choice to be here and I feel like that was a very strong choice to make. I've never doubted it.”

The embrace of place is evident in her work, with major exhibitions focused on the north -- like “Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation” and “True North: Contemporary Art of the Circumpolar North” -- and through what Rose called her “baby”: the Northern Initiative. That initiative has a broader goal of exploring and discussing challenges facing the North.

“We want to make this a more connected institution,” she said. “We can't look at ourselves as this isolated place, we need to look at exporting things.”

Big ideas

While that idea might be one of the museum's greatest strengths, it might also be its biggest challenge. The museum has an “encyclopedic” mission, according to Decker. It encompasses all forms of Alaska; including both science and culture. Trying to find the balance between all of that will be part of the challenge.

Also a challenge? Making sure the museum is still a place for the local community, not just visitors or residents bringing their guests for a visit.

Over the years, attendance has been booming for the museum, thanks in part to the 2009 expansion that made it possible to bring in big “blockbuster” exhibits like “Star Wars,” “Body Worlds Vital” and “Andy Warhol: Manufactured,” which Decker helped curate.

Those brought big numbers into the museum. In 2006 -- prior to the expansion, 119,830 people visited the museum. In 2012, 164,825 walked through the doors -- including 22,000 "Body Worlds" tickets.

Don't expect those big ticket items to go away, Decker said, but do expect them to always have a local bent.

“What I'm really interested in is not what's the biggest show that got the most attendance in Las Vegas,” she said. “I really do care about what it means to our community and figuring out ways it relates to us.”

Big plans in the near future include an exhibition to commemorate the 2015 Anchorage Centennial. Decker hopes to remove the stigma that some might have with the term “centennial” and bring a broad range of voices and artifacts into the exhibition.

Another big item on the agenda: renovating the 15,000-square-foot Alaska gallery, which hasn't seen a major update since 1986.

And you can tell. Decker said the dated exhibit -- with its dioramas and thousands of artifacts presented behind glass cases -- leaves much to be desired. Starting in January, the museum will begin the process of updating it, bringing it more in line with modern museum presentations, including presenting bigger, more conceptual ideas and making it more interactive, both in terms of interactive technology and being a space for community to come together.

That idea of coming together is probably what it all comes down to at the end of the day for Decker.

“It's exciting because we can bring these ideas here,” she said. “It's about how we can make this place more vibrant.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell