“Art at the Center”: Walker Art Center squeezes 75 years and five directors into four galleries

“Art at the Center”: Walker Art Center squeezes 75 years and five directors into four galleries

As big anniversaries go, 75 doesn’t have the marquee value of big round numbers like 50 and 100. 75 is significant for one important reason, though: it’s approximately the span of a human life. At a 75th anniversary, the event being commemorated is beginning to slip from living memory—almost everyone who personally remembers what it meant at the time is gone.

It was in 1940 that the Walker Art Center became the Walker as we know it, though its roots date back to the 19th century seeds of T.B. Walker’s art collection. This weekend, the Walker launches what amounts to a two-year celebration of its 75th anniversary with a series of events that include the opening of Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections.

The show, lovingly curated by Walker director Olga Viso with Joan Rothfuss—who was responsible for Midnight Party, the dynamite show that Art at the Center replaces—tells the Walker’s story in a series of four sequential galleries, each devoted to one (in one case, two) of the Walker’s five directors. Since the Walker has increasingly collected very contemporary (as in, brand-new) work, that means it also tells the story of art in the postwar era.

That’s a lot of story to tell, and really, the work on display in Art at the Center is just a sketch of that story. It’s a revealing sketch, though, serving to deconstruct the museum that we know and love circa 2014. Leading a media tour of the exhibit on Wednesday morning, Viso talked about past directors the way U.S. historians talk about past presidents: as leaders who faced particular challenges that they deployed unique sets of skills to solve.

A fascinating thing about the Walker is that its collection was built, in part, by eating itself. As opposed to the Getty Museum—which was built on and remains limited by the taste of its founder—the Walker Art Center was launched in 1940 to collect, display, and celebrate a body of work that had virtually no overlap with the collection it was built on. T.B. Walker was a lumber baron who collected European masterworks, Asian carvings, 19th century American paintings, and other sorts of things you bought when you were a culture vulture who was one of the richest men in the world in the early 20th century.

Walker’s collection was displayed in the first art gallery west of the Mississippi, in Walker’s home on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, starting in 1879. The Walker Art Galleries moved to the current site in 1927—a year before T.B.’s death—and became the Walker Art Center in 1940, product of a reboot funded by WPA grants and private donations including thousands of one-dollar memberships (“membership” being 1940s slang for “Kickstarter”) and a large gift from Susan Walker, T.B.’s daughter-in-law.

A big jade from Walker’s original collection—now owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which loaned it back for the occasion—stands in a “time capsule” near the entry of Art at the Center, where it marks the end of the T.B. era and the beginning of the present era, which ultimately saw the deaccessioning of virtually the entirety of the Walker Art Galleries’ ye olde collection.

The first director of the Walker Art Center was Daniel Defenbacher, who set the tone for the institution by making a series of acquisitions that Viso repeatedly described as “statements.” The museum’s first acquisition was Franz Marc’s 1911 Large Blue Horses—a piece of “degenerate art” that had been rescued from Nazi Germany. The blue horses charge through the first gallery, next to a Richard Haas scrim rendering (1978-79) of the original Walker Art Galleries that’s been mothballed for decades—for good reason, IMHO, though it was a nice touch to dust it off for the occasion.

Defenbacher was followed by H. Harvard Arnason, an art historian who solidified the museum’s holdings with unimpeachable acquisitions by blue-chip modern artists like Georgia O’Keeffe (Lake George Barns, 1926). Arnason also continued to lay the foundation for the Walker’s pioneering performing arts program, which has become an international model as more and more contemporary art museums have recognized the need to incorporate performance- and movement-based work into their programming. (His daughter, Eleanor Arnason, is a noted sci-fi author and active blogger.)

Chuck Close’s Big Self Portrait (1967-68) hangs at the entrance of the gallery dedicated to Martin Friedman, who led the Walker from 1962 to 1990. Close credits the acquisition with launching his career, and it’s appropriately emblematic of the curator who kept the Walker at the center of the international art conversation for nearly 30 years. Friedman’s gallery includes many of the Walker’s most iconic works—including Yves Klein’s Mondo Cane Shroud (1961), Donald Judd’s anodized aluminum boxes (1969/82), and Claes Oldenburg’s stuffed shoestring potatoes (1966). Friedman also witnessed the arrival of the Guthrie Theater (built adjacent to the Walker, no coincidence) and the construction of the Walker’s 1971 Edward Larrabee Barnes building as well as the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which opened in 1988.

Kathy Halbreich led the Walker through the nineties and up until 2007, overseeing the museum’s expansion into Herzog & de Meuron’s big gray cube and continuing her predecessor’s practice of collecting up-to-the-minute work like Elizabeth Peyton’s Princess Kurt (as in Cobain, 1995). Halbreich’s gallery is introduced by a new installation of Lawrence Weiner’s 1991 BITS & PIECES PUT TOGETHER TO PRESENT A SEMBLANCE OF A WHOLE, big words that formerly adorned the outside of the building and have now been tipped at a jaunty angle and rendered (at the artist’s instruction) in glamorous reflective silver for the big anniversary.

Viso and other Walker luminaries make cameos in Goshka Macuga’s 2011 Photoshop tapestry Lost Forty, an impressive but awkward panorama that bookends the contiguous portion of Art at the Center. A short walk away, the Walker’s Burnet Gallery is devoted to Viso-era acquisitions, soundtracked by the booming bass of Hassan Khan’s video/sound installation Jewel (2010). I was particularly happy to see Trisha Donnelly’s Untitled (2008)—the pillow-faced Sphinxes from Peter Eleey’s endlessly fascinating 2009 Quick and the Dead exhibition—turn up as ironic sentinels of the eternal now.

The nows eventually add up, of course, and the Walker’s thrived (mostly) through 75 years of them. Five galleries are nowhere near enough to represent the breadth of the Walker’s activities and accomplishments—that’s what all the other anniversarial goings-on are for—but they’re enough to contain a series of signposts marking the history of an institution that was built to celebrate art as a living, evolving practice. As the Walker’s tenure eclipses the human lifespan, Art at the Center reminds us what we’ve been given, and what we’ve been challenged to create in our own time as stewards of this unique and pathbreaking institution.

Jay Gabler