When longtime Headlands Center for the Arts executive director Sharon Maidenberg announced her planned departure last year, a committee of staff and past and present board members started an international search to find the right person to expand and enhance the mission of the multidisciplinary, international arts center located in Sausalito at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge.
They found the ideal candidate in Maricelle “Mari” Robles, an arts educator, leader and administrator who grew up in Chicago, but is also informed and inspired by her Puerto Rican heritage (she is the first Latina to hold this role in the center’s 39-year history). Robles has spent much of her career crisscrossing the country working to build education and inclusivity programs at museums in Miami and Chicago and even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“I was excited about this opportunity at Headlands because I feel like it’s such an amazing artist-centric organization,” Robles says. “Given my experience with public programming and my interest in that intersection between communities, people, art and artists, and organizations, it felt like a perfect match.”
But it was her experience at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago that is illuminating her path now. “The MCA Chicago is in the Gold Coast neighborhood. It’s a tourist and luxury brand neighborhood. So how could it connect to all of the neighborhoods in the city of Chicago, and what are some strategies that museums can employ to signal that they’re listening to a broader audience?” Robles says, adding that while MCA Chicago was answering those questions 15 years ago, it seems that over the last five years more museums have started to seriously address the question of inclusivity. “I think the field is really being taken to task right now and that our cultural institutions should be able to articulate the public good they offer and be a part of the change to make the arts more equitable.”
At Headlands, Robles hopes to bring the arts to as many people in the Bay Area as possible by expanding access to the center’s artist talks, hikes, studio visits and tours, and through its new fellowship and its signature Artist-in-Residence programs.
“We offer public programs and I’m really interested in continuing to make that a stronger offering, and in making sure that people across the Bay Area know that they can come here, see an exhibition, experience a hike, take a self-guided walk that an artist recommends for you — they can run into creatives and also feel their own creativity.”
She wants to see the residencies and the new fellowships, including the inaugural Threshold Fellowship that launches with a marine biologist who will look at questions of climate change, grow so that there can be more intersections between Bay Area artists and the national and international artists who will come back to the residency program post-pandemic.
One way to do that is to keep the Community Rapid Response Fund — created to support artists working in their own communities during the pandemic — going even after the pandemic and to bring the Headlands experience to the public. “We have a gorgeous campus, but it can be difficult to get to,” Robles says. “What does Headlands look like when it is in your community.”
When it comes down to it, Robles’ own family experience is the ultimate guiding light for how she wants to approach her work at Headlands.
“Growing up, I saw individuals who feel comfortable in cultural spaces, they feel like it’s their own, and that they can claim it regularly,” Robles says. “And then I have family members who don’t feel that way. It’s about how the invitation happens and I think that is where my deep passion for the arts comes from.”