People of the Year 2017: Simone Wicha, Director, Blanton Museum of Art

words by me; image courtesy of Randal Ford

The Dynamic Arts Patron Is Elevating Austin to a True Destination For The Visual Arts

Simone Wicha is a native Texan, but she was never one who had specific intentions to return. Growing up in Mexico City, attending high school and university in Texas, and departing afterwards for a career in New York City, Wicha’s agenda did not necessarily include a trip back down south. Rather, being recruited by the museum that she now calls home, coupled with excellent personal timing family-wise, brought her back. That was more than a decade ago. Since her arrival at the Blanton, Wicha has been promoted from director of development, to deputy director, to museum director outright, assembled what she believes is a world-class team, produced arguably the most ambitious exhibitions the museum has ever housed, and cemented the museum’s place as a pillar of both the university and the city’s art community as a whole. If it wasn’t already obvious, this is one unexpected return that quickly proved invaluable in amplifying Austin’s arts reputation tenfold.

“It was a really important moment in my mind for Austin, because while I was at school at UT, it was a city where the arts were not really part of the fabric of the community,” Wicha says. “So I thought, ‘This is a moment to be a part of this. How many opportunities do you have to really make an impact on a city that’s growing like this, and hopefully have an impact?’ It’s huge.”

Wicha is only the fifth director in the Blanton’s 54-year history, and she’s arguably its most determined, insofar as her ambition for the museum — and its potential cultural influence — knows no bounds. Directing a museum that already greets upwards of 20,000 visitors from UT’s campus alone (one of the highest percentage-wise in the country), Wicha has set her sights equally on the Blanton’s position within the city’s larger arts landscape, looking far beyond the building’s physical location on campus to the hearts and minds of every Austinite she can think of. No stone gets left unturned in this director’s pursuit of greater awareness and significance for her institution.

“We want to serve the university campus, obviously, but our intention is to be open to the community,” she says. “So that’s always a balance. To me it’s awareness. I want everyone to feel like, ‘This is my museum,’ and I want all of those people to be impacted with where they need to be with where they’re at in their life. I want all of them to feel really proud of their community and what we’ve got here at the Blanton.”

Wicha’s ambition is matched by her unwavering excitement — for both her museum’s potential and the city’s future as a whole. For her, it’s an exhilarating time to be in Austin — and the Blanton’s visitors undoubtably would agree. Proof of the institution’s (and, by default, Wicha’s) ability to live up to this potential can be seen in exhibitions from recent years past — from “Warhol: By The Book”, the first exhibit in the US to analyze that specific body of work, to, most recently, “Epic Tales From Ancient India”, which was on view from the San Diego Museum of Art. For Wicha, fulfilling the potential she so clearly sees is, at this point, all but second nature.

“I want to provide the city with the museum it deserves,” she says. “And I want more people to feel like the arts add value to their life and can be a place that they can find joy and learn and thrive as much as the other art forms in this city. I believe that it’s already happening, and I believe that it’s going to happen even more so.”

Practically speaking, Wicha’s most recent labor of love, and what has specifically memorialized the year 2017, is what she calls a monumental Ellsworth Kelly project, appropriately titled “Austin”, that’s set to open in February, potentially having national and international implications for the museum and its search for greater influence.

“Austin” is the only freestanding building that Kelly has ever designed. A 2,175-square-foot building with colored glass windows and 14 marble panels, it was created with the intention of bringing joy and contemplation to its visitors, and will become a cornerstone of the Blanton’s permanent collection.

“I think the opening of the Kelly project makes Austin a true destination for the visual arts,” she says. “So if you care about the arts anywhere in the world, there is a reason, a real reason, for you to make the trip to Austin. I feel proud of what we’ve done on campus and in our community, and I think marking the city and marking the museum with the honor that we were given to be able to realize this project at the Blanton starts to change the dynamic and make us a world-class destination.”

Wicha may have a lot of the aforementioned ambition resting on the upcoming Kelly project, but one thing’s certain: this is one director who’s already made her mark. Here’s hoping she’s here to stay.