James H. DeGraffenreidt, Jr. was named president of the Walters Art Museum Board, Oct. 16., making him the first African American to hold the position.

He succeeds Ellen N. Bernhard, who was named chair of the board. Both will serve three-year terms.

James H. DeGraffenreidt is the first Black president of the Walters Art Museum. (Courtesy Photo)

“It’s gonna be a lot of fun,” DeGraffenreidt told the AFRO. “I’m looking forward to it.”

DeGraffenreidt, and his wife Dr. Mychelle Farmer, moved to Baltimore in 1979. He grew up in New York, visiting museums in the area.

“The Walters can go toe-to-toe with any of the best museums in New York, including the Met,” Degraffenreidt said referring to the world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Walters board, under his leadership, wants to establish a larger role in the Baltimore community, DeGraffenreidt said. The museum is already admission free and its entire collection is available to view online.

“Our big objective is to broaden the sense of ownership of the Walters that the wider Baltimore community feels,” Degraffenreidt said.

To build this sense, DeGraffenreidt said he is looking to continue building “personal connections” in a place that enables visitors to tell their own story reflecting on artifacts from centuries of civilization.

“My personal connection is, I enjoy the variety of art that’s there and the serenity of the space,” DeGraffenreidt said. “I brought all four of my kids through the museum on a regular basis and they all did school projects based on visits to the museum throughout the course of their years growing up in Baltimore. Our connection to the museum is long standing and pretty deep.”

From 2006 to 2016, DeGraffenreidt served on the Maryland Board of Education. He was president from 2008 to 2011.

During his time with Maryland’s Board of Education, DeGraffenreidt said that he recognized the connection between teachers, classrooms and curricula, and the educational work that the Walters provides and supports, especially in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Howard County.

“Our education department works closely with principals and teachers and superintendents on how to integrate what the Walters has to offer; to breathe additional life into the curricula that the students are learning, and to enrich the teacher’s’ depth in those areas so they recognize opportunities to present that material,” said DeGraffenreidt.

DeGraffenreidt hopes to strengthen that relationship in the future so that personal connections stay with young visitors into their adult years.

From July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017,150,000 visitors attended the Walters, of those hundreds of thousands, 58,388 were visitors who participated in Walters on-site education programs, 23,673 were students and teachers participating in K-12 school tours at the Walters. 8,600 of those visitors were students and teachers from Baltimore City schools, said Becca Seitz, The Walters Director of Marketing and Communication.

“People will understand that there’s a lot of scholarship that resides in the museum that is useful in everything that they do,” DeGraffenreidt said. “But it’s gotta be personalized for them, because everybody’s experience is different.”

While Dr. Farmer was in medical school at Yale, she along with other Yale interns, and residents were taken to museums to sharpen their observational skills, DeGraffenreidt said.

“Coaching people through the experience of observing a painting, or a piece of sculpture and describing what is going on, based on what you see, without making assumptions, but deriving conclusions based on the information on the canvas or that the object gives you, is just one small example of how people can have a personal, professional or educational experience, using what is available to them in the museum,” DeGraffenreidt said.

While the particulars of the Walters mission have changed, the spirit hasn’t, Degraffenreidt said.

“We’re trustees, literally, and in the highest sense of the word, trustees of a major gift that belongs to the citizens,” DeGraffenreidt said. “We’re trying to make sure that we maximize the benefit that was intended by the Walters, even as they probably couldn’t envision what Baltimore City would look like almost a hundred years since they initiated the gift.”