Walker Art Center

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A Perennial Favorite
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

By Cathy Madison

Everyone loves it and feels some ownership as they point out the center-piece spoon and cherry to their visitors; and now that it’s just across the way from what is rapidly becoming another Twin Cities landmark—the Walker’s gleaming new expansion—it’s even easier to find. As people drive by or stroll the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden grounds, however, they discover that they can’t say exactly how long it’s has been there, or where it came from, or to whom it belongs. Following is a brief history in one easy-to-swallow nutshell.

Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, who designed the Walker Art Center building that opened in 1971, won an American Institute of Architects Award for “perhaps the finest building for the display of contemporary art built in the last generation,” as the New York Times described it. But his work wasn’t done. Then-director Martin Friedman and the Walker Board of Directors had a bigger civic vision. Across Vineland Place stood a large, unoccupied bit of land in an area dubbed the Parade in 1904. Around the turn of the century, the Kenwood Armory, a large brick building used for shows, fights, and even a John Philip Sousa performance, was built on peat bogs and quicksand. Its poor foundation and subsequent cracking led to its demise in 1933, but the formal flower beds next to it, called the Armory Gardens, were deeded to the Minneapolis Park Board and maintained until 1966, when a freeway dissected the area. To Barnes, it seemed a perfect setting for a sculpture park. [Friedman engineered a partnership between the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which maintains the grounds, and the Walker, which oversees the artworks.]

Twenty thousand people attended the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden’s opening weekend September 10 and 11, 1988. Barnes had designed a 7.5-acre, $12-million garden that blends formal and informal, temporary and permanent. Four roofless rooms, each 100-by-100 feet, are bordered by low granite walls and evergreen hedges that lead to a fifth giant room surrounded by evergreens. The Cowles Conservatory, which houses Frank Gehry’s Standing Glass Fish, also graces the site.

One sculpture highlight, commissioned by the Walker and destined to become an icon for Minneapolis itself, was Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry. A 1,200-pound cherry, 9.5 feet in diameter with water spraying out of its 12-foot stem, rests on a 52-foot spoon surrounded by a pond. (The whimsical work is one of several that emerged from Oldenburg’s fascination with a novelty spoon, its bowl resting in a gob of fake chocolate, that he’d bought in 1962.) Another icon is the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, a 375-foot steel-and-wood footbridge created by Siah Armajani to cross the 16 lanes of traffic that stream above and below ground along the Garden’s edge. A poem by John Ashbery adorns the steel span.

When the Parade Stadium was torn down in 1990, another $2 million in donations provided four more acres for the Garden, and the expansion designed by Massachusetts-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. opened in 1992. It has proved a popular site for performances, community celebrations, and weddings, not to mention the casual walks and talks of museum visitors, neighbors, and urban wanderers. In 2004 alone, more than 300,000 people dropped by.

— Excerpt from an essay by Cathy Madison in the book Art Spaces: Walker Art Center (Scala, 2005), available in the Walker Shop