It was in 2005 that the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis really cemented its reputation with the coastal art world types who are sometimes known to gloss over Midwestern venues as Flyover Country. A snazzy Herzog & de Meuron addition will do that.
But the building, which was among a suite of great museums the firm designed in that period, was just the physical manifestation of the Walker’s leading role in contemporary art. Founded in a local grandee’s house in 1940, then expanding to a 1971 Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed structure, the Walker has consistently led the field in terms of a multidisciplinary approach to art, especially with performance.
Now, the Walker—under its leader since 2008, Olga Viso—is expanding its vision to the next logical place: outdoors. Sixteen new artworks will debut next June on the campus and in the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (programmed by the Walker), perhaps best known for Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985-1988).
“The sculpture garden will basically envelop the Walker and come up the hill,” says Viso. “And what’s going to feel really different to visitors is that in essence the footprint of the garden will have been extended by five acres.”
Viso has developed a reputation for ambitious thinking, and the selection of the sculptures follows suit. Yes, there’s a Robert Indiana LOVE piece, but there are also very abstract works by Tony Cragg and Sol LeWitt.
Women are well represented, including Eva Rothschild, Liz Larner and Nairy Baghramian. Indeed, the new Minneapolis tourist attraction is likely to be Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock, a huge, electric-blue rooster. “That’s going to be a real center point, a really iconic piece by a major female artist in our collection,” says Viso.
A Theaster Gates commission will be another highlight. “We’re bringing it forward to the current moment,” she says. “There’s a new contemporary materiality to many of the sculptures—artists working with synthetic materials or light, not just a lot of bronze. More color, more variety.”
The Walker is able to work on this scale because of an endowment around $200 million—bigger than most comprehensive art museums in major U.S. cities. “That’s part of what gives us creative and artistic freedom,” says Viso, particularly in taking chances on younger artists.
Viso is a Florida native, born to Cuban parents. She came to the Walker from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where she was director, after stints at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta among other places, and she curated a widely seen show of the artist Jim Hodges that traveled the country in 2013 and 2014.
The timing of her Minneapolis arrival was both lucky and not so. The Walker had just doubled in size before she got there—thus she wasn’t in new-building-fundraising mode from the start. But “then the recession came six months after I started,” she says. And she followed superstar Kathy Halbreich—who went to the Museum of Modern Art as associate director—in the job.
So Viso has focused on master planning. Last year the Walker celebrated its 75th anniversary with a $75 million capital campaign, including a refurbishing of the Barnes building facade. The sculpture garden project is the last major piece of the puzzle.
The biggest upcoming indoor programming plays right to the institution’s strengths, too: “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” due in February (with a concurrent version at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago), with performances spilling into spaces outside on the campus.
Viso sees it as the best example of what the Walker can do. “What this show is doing is in many ways kind of rewriting history a bit in terms of the impact that Cunningham had, but also the interchange between artists,” she says. In particular, it will delve into the relationship between Cunningham’s work and Robert Rauschenberg’s famous Combines, illuminating no less than “the history of artistic collaboration across the disciplines, which was a model in the ’60s and has such resonance in terms of how art is being produced today,” says Viso.
When combined with the sculpture garden, Viso feels the big picture is well framed. “It’s exciting,” she says. “It completes the vision Kathy started.”
Photos Courtesy of Public Art Fun, Bockley Gallery and Walker Art Center.