Walker Art Center hires 'rising star' to take helm

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 11, 2007 - 9:35 PM

Olga Viso, a contemporary art expert, will leave the Hirshhorn in Washington and will work to improve Walker attendance.

A Cuban-American regarded as a "rising star" in the museum world will become Walker Art Center's director.

Olga Viso, 41, is director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington -- like the Walker, one of the nation's "big five" modern-art museums.

She will start her new job in January, replacing Kathy Halbreich, who leaves Nov. 1 after 16 years as director.

"One of the things that really appeals to me is the Walker's multidisciplinary character -- the fact that you have a visual arts program, a performing arts program, the media program," Viso said by phone Tuesday. "I think that makes the Walker unique among institutions, certainly in American museums. And that is where contemporary art is. It's focused on all those connections across disciplines."

A Florida native born to Cuban émigrés, Viso is an expert in Latin American art who has spent the past 12 years at the Hirshhorn, which is the Smithsonian Institution's showcase of modern and contemporary art.

Viso began as an assistant curator in 1995 and advanced steadily through curatorial posts to the directorship in 2005. Besides organizing many solo and group shows, she expanded the Hirshhorn's engagement with contemporary art, developed programs to attract new audiences and enlarged and refocused its board of directors.

"Olga is a wonderful person who has a tremendous amount of experience and will bring enormous energy" to the Walker, said Neal Benezra, director of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, who hired Viso at the Hirshhorn.

"She is clearly a rising star in the art world who has a proven capacity to run an institution like the Walker," said Mike Peel, vice president of the Walker's board of directors and co-chair of the museum's 13-member search committee.

Her salary will be "between $350,000 and $400,000," Peel said, slightly below Halbreich, who was the same age as Viso when she took the Walker post, and now earns more than $400,000.

"This is the going [salary] rate for the big five contemporary-art museums, and most are higher because they're in bigger and more expensive cities," Peel said. Besides the Walker and Hirshhorn, that group includes New York's Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim Museum, and San Francisco's MOMA.

One goal: Raising attendance

Viso spent four days in Minneapolis in late August, meeting Walker board members and discussing plans for the museum's future.

"She's pretty well briefed on the challenges facing the Walker," Peel said, noting that she had "dug very deep" into the museum's finances, program schedule and "a handful of the most strategic challenges."

Those include strengthening the Walker's attendance. In the fiscal year ended June 30, attendance at Walker shows and programs fell 15 percent to 330,230, while 281,060 visited the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, down 2 percent.

The Hirshhorn museum and sculpture garden drew about 750,000 last year, up 7 percent. Admission there is free, but nonetheless "we deal with that on a daily basis," Viso said, referring to the struggle to expand interest among potential audiences. "All contemporary museums have this challenge of how do you take work that sometimes is unfamiliar, and approaches to art that are challenging, and open them up?"

One strategy at the Hirshhorn is providing platforms for artists to explain their work. "That gives people points of entry into contemporary art," she said. "Every Friday we have artists' talks about favorite works in the collection [or] particular exhibitions. Artist interviews are available on our [web]site as podcasts."

Her to-do list also includes an addition to the sculpture garden, on the former Guthrie Theater site west of the museum. Following a $135.6 million expansion project that opened in 2005, the Walker had tentative plans for the garden but suspended them, pending review by the new director, who will have to raise money for the project.

"We have no idea what will ultimately emerge, but the new director will clearly have to think about how the sculpture garden and the museum integrate," Peel said.

  • OLGA VISO

    Education: M.A. degree in art history from Emory University in Atlanta in 1992

    Career: Worked in curatorial and administrative posts at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Curator at Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla. Joined Hirshhorn Museum in Washington in 1995 and became director in 2005.

    Marital status: Single.

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