As a leading national force since its founding, the Walker Art Center’s Performing Arts Department has been built successfully on a foundation laid by five visionary directors and a level of institutional commitment rare for a contemporary arts center.
The Walker began presenting local dance, poetry, and chamber music concerts in 1940. In 1953, the volunteer-staffed Center Arts Council (CAC) was formed to organize a wider range of performances and film screenings. Out of CAC grew the Center Opera Company (later the Minnesota Opera Company) in 1963, led by John Ludwig and dedicated primarily to contemporary American opera and unique collaborations between opera and visual artists. By the time it disbanded in 1970, the CAC had already presented Merce Cunningham’s first Minnesota performance (1963) and established its first artist commission, Alwin Nikolais’ Vaudeville of the Elements (1965). Performing Arts was officially designated as a department in 1970, with Suzanne Weil serving as coordinator until 1976.
Throughout the 1970s, the department sponsored events in a range of venues around the Twin Cities, increasing the visibility of contemporary dance, new music, jazz, and experimental theater and hosting an array of pop, rock, and folk concerts. Weil increased annual presentations from fewer than one hundred in the mid-1960s to more than two hundred annual presentations by the early 1970s. She launched significant program initiatives and established key relationships with a range of artists now considered masters—Cunningham, Mabou Mines, Philip Glass, Twyla Tharp, Meredith Monk, and many others—that continue today. Weil also designed elaborate residencies and laid the foundation for what would become an active commissioning program, both of which served as national models for the field.
Nigel Redden assumed the directorship in 1976 and further solidified the Walker’s growing national reputation by producing major festivals such as the M-80: No Wave/New Wave rock festival (1979), New Music America (1980), and New Dance USA (1981). He helped establish the Twin Cities as a vital center for noncommercial composed, experimental, and avant-garde music through his collaboration with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which cosponsored the long-running Perspectives Series. His major commissions for Trisha Brown (Glacial Decoy, 1979) and Richard Foreman (City Archives, 1977) were early indicators of directions the program would take in the disciplines of dance and theater.
Commissioning activity and support of artist residencies grew during Robert Stearns’ six-year tenure, which began in 1982. He launched a number of large-scale, nationally significant theatrical projects, including David Byrne/Robert Wilson’s The Knee Plays (1984) and Lee Breuer/Robert Telson’s epic The Gospel at Colonus (1983). He also began two long-standing collaborative series—Discover: New Directions in Performance (with Northrop Auditorium) and Out There in 1989 (with the Southern Theater)—and, with former Walker film curator Melinda Ward, helped develop the national public television program Alive from Off Center (1985–1997).
John Killacky assumed leadership of the department in 1988, and the following year his position was retitled curator of Performing Arts. Despite declines in national funding that began to negatively impact all arts organizations in the mid-1990s, Killacky’s years marked a time of greater engagement with the local artistic community (Imp Ork, Patrick Scully, Shawn McConneloug), more international programming, and continued support for major artists of the Walker’s history. A commitment to provocative, identity-based performance work, which was central to the times, included memorable (and controversial) evenings with Ron Athey, Diamanda Galás, Karen Finley, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco.
In 1997, Philip Bither became curator and focused departmental energies toward a renewed interest in contemporary music (jazz, avant-rock, and new music), experimental puppetry, and in-depth community-based artist residencies (Bill T. Jones, Liz Lerman, Joanna Haigood, and others). The department’s global programming and the commissioning of large-scale theater and dance projects are further emphasized, including Builders Association/motiroti’s Alladeen (2003); Improbable Theatre’s The Hanging Man (2004); and Ralph Lemon’s Come home Charley Patton (2005). In 1999, the Walker was awarded a $1.5 million program endowment grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, dramatically increasing its ability to make long-range commitments and fund the early development of new works. In 2004, William and Nadine McGuire contributed $10 million in support of commissioning performing arts projects and for construction of a state-of-the-art theater that bears their name, ensuring a permanent home for contemporary performing artists at the Walker.