Walker Art Center

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Composing the Contemporary Collection

In a Walker exhibition of the not-too-distant future, you’ll see a piece by San Francisco–based artist Trisha Donnelly. In 2005 the Walker acquired its first work by Donnelly—a drawing entitled Bend Sinister (2004)—and over the past two years has added two additional pieces, including the video Untitled (1998–1999). In it, the artist, dressed in white, performs in slow motion the signature “rock star” poses of musicians such as PP Arnold, Ronnie Spector, Joey Ramone, Iggy Pop, and David Lee Roth. Donnelly’s work defies easy categorization, and she has garnered international attention over the past decade for her multidisciplinary gestures that combine sound, video, photography, and movement. Her serious interdisciplinary practice is a perfect fit for an institution such as the Walker Art Center. “A large part of the highlights in the Walker’s collection consists of acquisitions that are planned in advance and sometimes take several years to acquire, but we also collect pieces fresh from the artist’s studio and work hard to build a collection that responds to the current moment,” says associate curator Elizabeth Carpenter, who oversees the Walker’s permanent collection. “Opportunities come up and sometimes we have to act quickly or risk losing a piece to another institution or private collector. In all cases, our acquisitions—both purchases and gifts— have to support the Walker’s vision to embrace a broad world view of contemporary art that is multidisciplinary and innovative.”

The Walker’s collection numbers around 11,000 pieces; approximately 30 works are purchased in any given year. Artists taking part in solo or group exhibitions at the Walker inevitably become a natural source for new acquisitions, and curators are always trying to add substance to holdings by artists the institution is committed to collecting in-depth, such as Joseph Beuys, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd, whose work is currently on view in exhibition Statements. Leads on little-known and emerging artists often come from research travel and visits to international biennials and gallery exhibitions. One recent phenomenon, Carpenter says, is the consideration of international artists living in cities as far as Bangalore (India), Cluj Napoca (Romania), and Yangjian (China). In 1999, while chief curator/deputy director Philippe Vergne was traveling in Japan, he came across the work of Indian artist Sheela Gowda in a gallery. In 2002, the Walker pursued the acquisition of her installation And Tell Him of My Pain (1998/2001), which premiered in the Walker’s 2003 group exhibition How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age and was more recently presented at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany.

Walker visual arts curators hold weekly meetings to present artists on their respective radars, discuss exhibitions ideas, and propose works that could strengthen the collection. These internal debates are both lengthy and lively, and are just square one. In addition to organizing exhibitions, curators spend months doing research; visiting studios, galleries, and art fairs; cultivating relationships with artists, dealers, and collectors; and wooing donors before a purchase or finalizing a gift.

If you had a chance to visit the exhibition Brave New Worlds this past winter, you might remember the floor piece by Gabriel Kuri, the prints of Walid Raad, an air-balloon sculpture by Tomás Saraceno, or the multimedia installation by Haegue Yang. Each of these works entered the collection as part the Walker’s commitment to support multidisciplinary artists and provide a record of its programs for future audiences.

Paul Chan is an artist of interest to both the visual arts and the film departments. Although he has been known for video animations and collaborative projects that combine art with political activism, his work on paper titled Worldwide trash (thanks for nothing Hegel) (2004) was his first piece acquired by the Walker. This year, two more works by Chan were added: a video projection, 6th Light (2007); and 15 collages, Score for 7th Light. Both are the final works in a sevenpart series, The 7 Lights (2005–2007), which explores the light cycles of the creation myth.

Assistant curator Yasmil Raymond says that Walker visual arts curators have inherited their approach to acquisitions from the Walker’s institutional legacy: the collection is approached as a platform for risk-taking, and embodies a flexible structure within which to revise, experiment, and rewrite conventional thinking about the history of modernity. “Fostering long-term relationships with interdisciplinary artists, collecting in-depth, and looking globally and across generations are all key mandates,” she says, “but we also consider it critical to pursue under-recognized works thought to be ‘outside’ the traditional canon.”

Paul Chan Score for 7th Light, 2007

ink, collage on paper (15 sheets)
15 sheets, 14 x 11 in.
Collection Walker Art Center
Miriam and Erwin Kelen Acquisition Fund for Drawings and the T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2008