Since the Walker Art Center’s founding in 1940, special exhibitions have been a cornerstone of its program, and they are, along with stewardship of the collections and management of commissions and artists’ residencies, the principal responsibilities of the Visual Arts Department. These three activities are interwoven in a way that makes each stronger, and they also reinforce the department’s goals to present and acquire the strongest work by the most compelling artists of the day; to make that art more accessible to audiences; to offer young artists support in a variety of ways; and to contribute to scholarship in the fields of art and cultural history. While aesthetic emphases have shifted with changes in taste and personnel, the goal of the Visual Arts program has remained remarkably true to the Walker’s founding tenet: to make clear the nourishing connection between contemporary art and contemporary life.
The exhibition program is a mix of contemporary, historical, group, monographic, thematic, and media-specific shows. The vitality of the moment has been on view in such presentations as London: The New Scene (1965) and Let’s Entertain (2000). Dozens of artists have had their first major museum exposure in Walker exhibitions, among them Joseph Cornell, Frank Gehry, Julie Mehretu, Mario Merz, and Kara Walker. Important scholarly work has been done in exhibitions that looked at under-explored groups (Arte Povera, De Stijl, Fluxus) or applied new critical lenses to the work of established artists (Chantal Akerman, Lucio Fontana, Bruce Nauman). The introduction of new technologies and experimental media-an inescapable part of the contemporary experience-has been the focus in Light/Motion/Space (1967) and The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960–1982 (2003). The Walker’s multidisciplinary mission has led to cross-departmental collaboration in exhibitions such as Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History (1989, with Design) and Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Bill T. Jones/Meredith Monk (1998, with Performing Arts). Often, disciplines are blended within the space of the gallery itself, with performances and film screenings presented side-by-side and in dialogue with objects.
Since the 1940s, Visual Arts has consciously positioned its exhibition program as an international one, but in recent years it has attempted to embrace even more of the world, a change that reflects broad political, economic, and cultural shifts as well as demographic changes that have radically transformed the Twin Cities. Early exhibitions such as New Art of Brazil (1962) and New Art of Argentina (1964) have been augmented by Tokyo: Form and Spirit (1986), which looked at historical and contemporary aspects of life in Japan; Hélio Oiticica (1993), a retrospective of a key Brazilian artist of the postwar period; and the multidisciplinary, cross-departmental How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age (2003), which identified emerging trends in art from five continents. A parallel effort has been made to place more Walker-organized shows on the road, sharing the art with a much broader public and extending the life of each project. To date, more than one hundred fifty Walker exhibitions have been presented in dozens of cities on four continents. In 2005 alone, seven travelling shows will be seen by audiences in Arizona, California, Florida, North Dakota, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, and Switzerland.
Since the 1960s, Visual Arts exhibitions have been enriched by specially commissioned new works. Commissions give emerging artists an opportunity to define themselves and challenge established artists to take their work in new directions; often, they also bring those artists into the community for extended periods of time to fabricate or install their pieces. In recent years, some have taken part in a formal program of community-based artist residencies, which offer small groups of participants the chance for close interaction with an artist. Resident artists have the chance to work directly with the public, and participants gain a new understanding of what the experience of art can be. Visual artists-in-residence—who have included Robert Irwin, Glenn Ligon, Barry McGee, Catherine Opie, Lorna Simpson, and Nari Ward, among many others—may be featured in exhibitions, commissioned to produce new work, asked to curate a project from the Walker’s collections, or invited to install their work in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
In many ways, the Visual Arts Permanent Collection is thoroughly integrated with the institution’s history. After 1958 (when Martin Friedman was hired as a curator), exhibitions, commissions, and acquisitions were pursued at a much faster pace; as a result, the collections—though they encompass the whole of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—are strongest after 1960. Similarly, working with living artists became a priority during Friedman’s tenure as curator and director (1961 to 1990); many of the works in the collection were exhibited, commissioned, or discovered during studio visits. Some relationships with artists—for example, Matthew Barney, Robert Gober, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Sherrie Levine, and Claes Oldenburg—have extended over many years and encompassed multiple projects, and the collection often reflects that commitment through deep holdings that follow the shifts and turns of a whole career. In 1991, Kathy Halbreich assumed the directorship, and under her leadership the mission to support living artists remained central, but she also directed the expansion of the collection to include groups who have remained outside the traditional artistic canon. These “alternative modernisms” include Japanese Gutai, Viennese Actionism, Italian Arte Povera, and Fluxus, all of which developed during the 1950s and 1960s, and all of which are underrepresented in public collections in the United States. This somewhat “left of center” position has formed a collection with a unique shape.
With the appointment of Olga Viso to the directorship in 2008, the collection will continue to grow, with focused acquisitions filling in gaps in chronology or breadth and new artists from around the world extending the narrative of the collection into the present day. The Walker’s holdings are the basis for many special exhibitions, and they are made available to scholars and students, which ensures their continual revitalization within new context and critical discourses as well as for new generations of viewers.