"Art at the Center": Walker Art Center squeezes 75 years and five directors into four galleries

As big anniversaries go, 75 doesn’t have the marquee value of big round numbers like 50 and 100. 75 is significant in one important way, though: it’s about the span of a human life. At a 75th anniversary, the event being commemorated is beginning to slip from living memory—almost everyone who personally remembers what it meant at the time has told all the stories they have to tell.

It was in 1940 that the Walker Art Center became the Walker as we know it, though its roots date back to the 19th century seeds of T.B. Walker’s art collection. This weekend, the Walker launches what amounts to a two-year celebration of its 75th anniversary with a series of events that include the opening of Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections.

The show, lovingly curated by Walker director Olga Viso with Joan Rothfuss—who was responsible for Midnight Party, the dynamite show that Art at the Centerreplaces—tells the Walker’s story in a series of four sequential galleries, each devoted to one (in one case, two) of the Walker’s five directors. Since the Walker has increasingly collected very contemporary (as in, brand-new) work, that means it also tells the story of art in the postwar era.

That’s a lot of story to tell, and really, the work on display in Art at the Center is just a sketch of that story. It’s a revealing sketch, though, serving to deconstruct the museum that we know and love circa 2014. Leading a media tour of the exhibit on Wednesday morning, Viso talked about past directors the way U.S. historians talk about past presidents: as leaders who faced particular challenges that they deployed unique sets of skills to solve.

A fascinating thing about the Walker is that its collection was built, in part, by eating itself. As opposed to the Getty Museum—which was built on and remains limited by the taste of its founder—the Walker Art Center was launched in 1940 to collect, display, and celebrate a body of work that had virtually no overlap with the collection it was built on. T.B. Walker was a lumber baron who collected European masterworks, Asian carvings, 19th century American paintings, and other sorts of things you bought when you were a culture vulture who was one of the richest men in the world in the early 20th century.

Walker’s collection was displayed in the first art gallery west of the Mississippi, in Walker’s home on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, starting in 1879. The Walker Art Galleries moved to the current site in 1927—a year before T.B.’s death—and became the Walker Art Center in 1940, product of a reboot funded by WPA grants and private donations including thousands of one-dollar memberships (“membership” being 1940s slang for “Kickstarter”) and a large gift from Susan Walker, T.B.’s daughter-in-law.

A big jade from Walker’s original collection—now owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which loaned it back for the occasion—stands in a “time capsule” near the entry of Art at the Center, where it marks the end of the T.B. era and the beginning of the present era, which ultimately saw the deaccessioning of virtually the entirety of the Walker Art Galleries’ ye olde collection.

The first director of the Walker Art Center was Daniel Defenbacher, who set the tone for the institution by making a series of acquisitions that Viso repeatedly described as “statements.” The museum’s first acquisition was Franz Marc’s 1911 Large Blue Horses—a piece of “degenerate art” that had been rescued from Nazi Germany. The blue horses charge through the first gallery, next to a Richard Haas scrim rendering (1978-79) of the original Walker Art Galleries that’s been mothballed for decades—for good reason, IMHO, though it was a nice touch to dust it off for the occasion.

Defenbacher was followed by H. Harvard Arnason, an art historian who solidified the museum’s holdings with unimpeachable acquisitions by blue-chip modern artists like Georgia O’Keeffe (Lake George Barns, 1926). Arnason also continued to lay the foundation for the Walker’s pioneering performing arts program, which has become an international model as more and more contemporary art museums have recognized the need to incorporate performance- and movement-based work into their programming. (His daughter, Eleanor Arnason, is a noted sci-fi author and active blogger.)

Chuck Close’s Big Self Portrait (1967-68) hangs at the entrance of the gallery dedicated to Martin Friedman, who led the Walker from 1962 to 1990. Close credits the acquisition with launching his career, and it’s appropriately emblematic of the curator who kept the Walker at the center of the international art conversation for nearly 30 years. Friedman’s gallery includes many of the Walker’s most iconic works—including Yves Klein’s Mondo Cane Shroud (1961), Donald Judd’s anodized aluminum boxes (1969/82), and Claes Oldenburg’s stuffed shoestring potatoes (1966). Friedman also witnessed the arrival of the Guthrie Theater (built adjacent to the Walker, no coincidence) and the construction of the Walker’s 1971 Edward Larrabee Barnes building as well as the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which opened in 1988.

Kathy Halbreich led the Walker through the nineties and up until 2007, overseeing the museum’s expansion into Herzog & de Meuron’s big gray cube and continuing her predecessor’s practice of collecting up-to-the-minute work like Elizabeth Peyton’s Princess Kurt (as in Cobain, 1995). Halbreich’s gallery is introduced by a new installation of Lawrence Weiner’s 1991 BITS & PIECES PUT TOGETHER TO PRESENT A SEMBLANCE OF A WHOLE, big words that formerly adorned the outside of the building and have now been tipped at a jaunty angle and rendered (at the artist’s instruction) in glamorous reflective silver for the big anniversary.

Viso and other Walker luminaries make cameos in Goshka Macuga’s 2011 Photoshop tapestry Lost Forty, an impressive but awkward panorama that bookends the contiguous portion of Art at the Center. A short walk away, the Walker’s Burnet Gallery is devoted to Viso-era acquisitions, soundtracked by the booming bass of Hassan Khan’s video/sound installation Jewel (2010). I was particularly happy to see Trisha Donnelly’s Untitled (2008)—the pillow-faced Sphinxes from Peter Eleey’s endlessly fascinating 2009 Quick and the Dead exhibition—turn up as ironic sentinels of the eternal now.

The nows eventually add up, of course, and the Walker’s thrived (mostly) through 75 years of them. Five galleries are nowhere near enough to represent the breadth of the Walker’s activities and accomplishments—that’s what all the other anniversarial goings-on are for—but they’re enough to contain a series of signposts marking the history of an institution that was built to celebrate art as a living, evolving practice. As the Walker’s tenure eclipses the human lifespan, Art at the Center reminds us what we’ve been given, and what we’ve been challenged to create in our own time as stewards of this unique and pathbreaking institution.

Jay Gabler

(Source: thetangential.com)

The tags tell you everything you need to know about this story.

The tags tell you everything you need to know about this story.

At the MIA next Thursday, we’ll have nerdy art trivia quizzes for your challenge and enjoyment. Consider this image a hint.

At the MIA next Thursday, we’ll have nerdy art trivia quizzes for your challenge and enjoyment. Consider this image a hint.

Get a load of what’s happening Friday night at Union Depot.


Come rock out with us next week at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for NERD THURSDAY.

We’re in on this too!

Science Museum of Minnesota reigns with monarch features

Last night, I wrote about how the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement is both creepy and fun. This morning, I had a similar mix of feelings about an entirely different local experience: seeing Flight of the Butterflies and visiting the Butterfly House at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Monarchs are big, in a way that somehow wasn’t entirely clear to me even after I saw them inflated to 50 feet long on the giant Omnitheater screen. When the first butterfly landed on me afterwards in the Butterfly House, I was enchanted. A dozen monarchs later, I started to feel a little bit like Tippi Hedren might have if The Birds had been written by Nabokov.

This wasn’t The Birds, though—this was the butterflies. As a reviewer, I try to judge things on their own terms, and Flight of the Butterflies is a near-perfect example of its type: an hour-long educational Omnifilm where panoramas of natural wonder alternate with cheesy reenactments of scientific discovery.

The discovery, in this case, is that of the Mexican haven to which monarchs migrate in a multigenerational, cross-continental southern journey. Actors dramatize lepidopterists Fred Urquhart (1911-2001), Cathy Aguado (b. 1949), and their colleagues as they tag butterflies to track them to the wooded mountains where they make their winter home. The first butterfly to be conclusively proven to have migrated from the far north, we learn, was tagged in—heyo!—Minnesota.

If director Mike Slee gets a little misty-eyed over Urquhart et al, he’s fluid and fascinating in his exposition of the monarch migratory cycle. Assisted by effective digital animation and astonishing photography by Simon de Glanville (but then, that’s table ante for this kind of film), Slee tells the butterflies’ story with quick but pointed jabs at human offenses ranging from crop-dusting to global warming.

Certainly if you have kids in tow—and probably even if you don’t—you’ll be inclined to make your way straight from the Omnitheater to the Butterfly House, which is much quieter, more focused, more educational, and (for better or for worse) more intimate than the State Fair’s version. The house, built within the museum’s large rotating exhibit gallery and walled with translucent plastic, is almost an art installation: the most memorable moment, for me if not for my niece and nephew, was watching blurry butterflies flit silently around other visitors as we waited our turn to gain admittance through the airlock.

The whole butterfly experience is easy to recommend for—as they say—the whole family. Don’t take my word for it, though: my young niece and nephew gave the movie and the exhibit two antennae up.

Jay Gabler

The Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement 2014: A whole new ghoul game


“It’s organized chaos down there.” Director Noah Bremer smiled as he emerged from the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basementlast night. Then he hesitated. “I’ve said too much.”

The best thing I can say about this year’s Haunted Basement, as a reviewer, is that Bremer was right: this year’s paranormal activity in the basement of the Minneapolis art space is carefully organized to be extraordinarily chaotic. After this—show? experience? happening?—and this summer’s Crime and Punishment, Bremer and his collaborators will be ready to teach a master class in the fine (and very difficult) art of moving crowds through a space in what feels to the audience like a free-choice environment.

Crime and Punishment—a Fringe show that was also held in the Soap Factory’s basement, and also directed by Bremer—was in part a testing ground for this year’s Haunted Basement. Last night he told me that the Haunted Basement turned out to be surprisingly different from both Crime and Punishment and last year’s underground terror, and I agree.

That said, the lucky few who caught the Fringe show will recognize certain key elements, returning in a re-contextualized way that only enhances their nightmarish quality. The ghoulish masks are back, and so is a lot of the subterranean set. The goat that was disemboweled during Crime and Punishment is back, and last night I saw it at the receiving end of an act that was better than disembowelment—if you had to choose—but still wasn’t consensual.

One of the hallmarks of the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement—the reason sell-out crowds keep coming back, year after year, is that it completely changes with each iteration. If you saw it last year, you have to see it again. While to some extent I miss the utterly—sometimes terrifyingly—random quality of the first Haunted Basements, which had different teams of artists tackling each room, it’s impressive how Bremer has reinvented the experience in a way that emphasizes its theatricality. This year’s “organized chaos” is in a sense the biggest change yet—but a change that feels right, by which I mean it feels very wrong in all the right ways.

Last night I certainly had the most intense physical interaction I’ve ever had with performers at what might even conceivably be regarded as a theatrical production. The free-form quality of this year’s Haunted Basement means that the performers are taking more cues from you, so in a real sense things go where you cause them to go—and, in a sense, where you’re ready for them to go. Does that sound creepy? Precisely.

As with previous years’ Haunted Basements, sometimes you’ll feel utterly alone and other times you’ll feel unexpectedly intense companionship with the other customers who descend. One of my favorite moments last night was when a monster jumped out at a big group of us, and two dozen people screamed and scattered like bowling pins.

After we emerged, my sister certified this year’s Haunted Basement as the scariest she’s been to in years. I said it was the most fun I’ve ever had at the annual frightfest. Those were two ways, of course, of saying the same thing.

Jay Gabler

(Source: thetangential.com)

"The Jeweler’s Shop": Open Window Theatre presents a surprising show by the only playwright-Pope


Those who aren’t Catholic often find it hard to believe that Catholic couples willingly consent to be counseled before—and, often, during—marriage by a priest, who by definition (except in the rare cases of widowers) has never been married.

The Jeweler’s Shop, a play by Pope John Paul II, suggests that you don’t necessarily need to be married to appreciate many of the complexities, contingencies, and challenges of lifelong commitment. Knowing yourself and what you seek, the play suggests, is at the heart of building a healthy relationship. That may not be the last word on marriage, but it’s not bullshit either.

The play is now being staged by Open Window Theatre in a warm but disciplined production that’s a must-see for those who are curious about the life and art of the Polish man born Karol Wojtyla in 1920. As an actor and playwright, Wojtyla partook of the heady brew of mid-century European theater—to the extent he was able, living through the Second World War. By the time he wrote The Jeweler’s Shop in 1960, he had witnessed a fuller range of the human experience than any person should have to.

The version of the play being staged in Open Window’s cozy space in the shadow of the Basilica (and I-394) is Ted Davis’s English adaptation, made more accessible both by the conversion of the original script’s long monologues into more conventional play form and by the (tasteful) addition of original songs by Paul Cassenova. Even so, this is no Hello, Dolly! It’s an introspective, challenging examination of three marriages, none of which are without complications and one of which might be considered truly miserable.

Director Jeremy D. Stanbary sets The Jeweler’s Shop in the round, with the urban scene set by scenic designer Nathan Farley in an impressive use of perspective. Christopher Erickson provides almost continuous gentle accompaniment on stringed instruments, helping to create an empathetic environment for the often pained tales of the play’s seven characters: two couples, their children, and a friend.

Stanbary does an impressive job of shaping the cast into a true ensemble; no actor stands out at the expense of any other, but Angela Walberg has the show’s most searing moments as a wife whose distant husband has driven her to desperation.

Questions of faith suffuse the play, in a complex manner. Wojtyla seems to recognize that having faith and having the answers are different things, and that to believe there’s a divine purpose behind our earthly experiences makes it only possible—not easy—to endure crises of faith not just in God but in one another.

When I was growing up Catholic, John Paul II seemed the perfect embodiment of the Papacy. Globetrotting in his Popemobile, he seemed to see all and forgive all. He didn’t, of course, and even as he’s been promoted to outright sainthood, progressive Catholics have pointed out that he was in many ways a deeply conservative figure who disappointed those hoping the revolution of Vatican II would continue to lead the Church in a more broadly humanistic direction.

In considering Karol Wojtyla’s long life and complex legacy, The Jeweler’s Shop provides fascinating insights into the man who remains the only playwright-Pope. In this generous and substantial production, Open Window Theatre has performed an important service and created an evening of theater you won’t soon forget.

 - Jay Gabler

2014 Ivey Awards turn the Ivey to 11

After ten years, the Ivey Awards finally have their twerking Miley—their Sacheen Littlefeather, their interrupting Kanye. That thing that, if you saw it, you had to share your opinion about. That thing was (or, those things were) puppets: giant puppets depicting the nine previous Lifetime Achievement awardees, which took the stage en masse in a climactic display, followed by the awardees themselves. 

You could immediately hear the buzz in the lobby after the ceremony. “Oh my God, those puppets.” “What did you think of the puppets?” “It was awesome.” “It was odd.” In a tweet, Savage Umbrella’s Heidi Halvarson made her opinion clear, with an additional comment on the soundtrack provided by the house band. 


I’ll save my take on the puppets until later, because there’s another controversy to get to: the fact that this year’s Lifetime Achievement award went to Bonnie Morris and Michael Robins of Illusion Theater. There’s no question as to the impressive achievements of the 40-year-old Minneapolis company, but there was an elephant in the room (or was he?): Guthrie Theater artistic director Joe Dowling, who’s stepping down after this season.

Did the directors of Minnesota’s professional theater companies—who collectively vote on the award—decide to save Dowling until next year? Were there lingering resentments over the widely-discussed shortage of diversity in the Guthrie’s programming? Or did they just figure that 20 years (Dowling’s tenure at the Guthrie) are only half as many as 40?

Controversy aside, this year’s ceremony, held last night at the State Theatre, turned up the Ivey: that irresistibly appealing tension between the slick production and the endearingly awkward, very Minnesotan, awardees.

"My clothes are by Savers," declared In the Heart of the Beast’s Sandy Spieler as she took the stage with Julie Boada to accept an Ivey for the design of Between the Worlds.

"I’m getting played off—this is really cool!" gushed director Anne Byrd, a winner for her work with Yellow Tree Theatre’s The 39 Steps.

Actress Sally Wingert, accepting an Ivey for her acting in four different shows this year, gave some personal thanks. “My husband Timmy just…does it with me all the time,” she said breathlessly, then paused in surprise at what had just come out of her mouth. “That sounded vulgar!” Cue the music. 

Not only are Ivey winners surprised to have won, they’re very surprised: because there are no nominations, the first clue a winner has that she’s any more likely to earn an Ivey than anyone else at the State is when her name is called. That even went for Scott Mayer, the tireless founder of the awards, who was presented with an honorary Ivey.

"I’m not going to name any names," Mayer said as he accepted, "because if I do I know I’ll forget some—and because I know we want to keep this under 90 minutes." 

The evening’s big winner was the Theatre Latté Da/Hennepin Theatre Trust production of Cabaret, which wowed the crowd with a show-opening performance, then went on to scoop an Ivey for overall excellence and one for star Tyler Michaels, who won the Emerging Artist award. 39 Steps was also a favorite: in addition to Byrd’s, there was an Ivey for actors Nathan Cousins and Tristan Tifft. For a complete rundown of winners, see the Iveys’ Twitter. 

Co-hosts Christina Baldwin and Randy Reyes grinned their way through the proceedings, Reyes seeming even freer than last year. A perk of sitting on the main floor at the Iveys: you can look back and read the teleprompter to tell when the presenters are going off script.

The best lines this year, though, went to the winners. “When I told people I had a part in Driving Miss Daisy,” quipped septuagenarian Wendy Lehr as she accepted an Ivey as part of the cast for the Jungle Theater production, “they said, ‘Which part?’”

But back to those puppets. When the towering Heart of the Beast creations first took the stage, lurching out from behind a rising scrim, I just thought, well, this is majestically weird. Then, as the Lifetime Achivement honorees themselves came out—including, amazingly, Old Log Theater legend Don Stolz, nearing 100 years old—and greeted each other like the old friends they are, I found myself moved. It was incredible, it was ridiculous, it was a spectacle. It was theater.

(Last year’s winner, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, broke the reverent mood as he took the podium to present this year’s award to Morris and Robins. “After the show,” he cracked, “they’re going to take us all out to a desert island and kill us off one by one in scenes from the Guthrie’s Christmas Carol.”) 

At the afterparty, on Solera’s rooftop, I met veteran actors Richard Ooms and Claudia Wilkens, a married couple. I asked Wilkens what shows they had planned, and she rattled off an impressive list covering the rest of 2014 and going into 2015. “We’ll be doing this until we can’t stand,” she said. “And then we can do Love Letters.”

- Jay Gabler

Photo courtesy Ivey Awards

The Our Flow is Hard reading series is hosting an extravaganza called Thunderbitch Spectacular in Powderhorn Park on Saturday, September 27th, at 4 PM, to celebrate the recent release of Elisabeth Workman’s first full-length poetry collection, Ultramegaprairieland. Other reader/guests include Feng Sun Chen, Sarah Fox, Paula Cisewski, George Farrah, and Emily Fedoruk.

The Our Flow is Hard reading series is hosting an extravaganza called Thunderbitch Spectacular in Powderhorn Park on Saturday, September 27th, at 4 PM, to celebrate the recent release of Elisabeth Workman’s first full-length poetry collection, Ultramegaprairieland. Other reader/guests include Feng Sun Chen, Sarah Fox, Paula Cisewski, George Farrah, and Emily Fedoruk.