Alexander's great plans

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2009 - 11:54 PM

Darsie Alexander, Walker Art Center's new chief curator, talks about her job, the Walker and art today.

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Darsie Alexander, Walker's new chief curator (started Nov. 2008) in her office, with a wall of Xeroxes of art behind her.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Darsie Alexander, who became Walker Art Center's chief curator in November, oversees the center's collections, shows and events. A graduate of Bates College in Maine, she has an M.A. from Williams College in Massachusetts and was a curatorial fellow at the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard. Since her arrival, Alexander, 44, has been planning a reinstallation of art from the Walker's collection that she thinks is the most important, interesting and relevant today. That show will open in November.

In her skylit office, she recently talked about her work. Excerpts follow.

Q What was your first museum job?

A I was assistant photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art from 1998 to 2000. That's where my professional career began, but I started my work as a check-in clerk at the Park Plaza hotel in Boston from about 1989 to 90. My peak moment there was checking in Susan Sontag. I gave her an upgrade because academics are always staying in cheap rooms.

Q Where were you before you came to the Walker?

A Baltimore Museum of Art. I was head of the contemporary art program here. They have a 14,000-square-foot wing with a great minimalist collection built in the 1970s.

Q How does the Walker compare?

A The art scene here is much more sophisticated. No, I don't want to use that word. More layered with big institutions and specialized institutions that serve niche art forms, from books to prints to ceramics. The challenge here is to balance big international exhibitions with those that specifically serve this community.

Q How are you planning to reorganize the Walker's collection?

A This show has gone through at least three phases of development. First, I tried to do Art 101 using the Walker collection. In the second version I totally dispensed with that and started to think about themes and the history of the collection itself, the people who shaped it and what it projected. Then it started to morph into events -- economic markers, war. The third iteration shifted to be more about performance and life experience. It's going to be events as embodied in both art and life, the real world. I think that's one of the obligations of contemporary art -- to talk about life experience.

Q Like most contemporary museums, Walker collects mostly post-World War II art. Is that what you'll be showing?

A We're starting much later than the conventional date, which is 1945. We wanted to tell a more current story, which meant starting at a later moment. Anything before 1980 seems ancient.

Q From the Xeroxes behind you, it appears that the show is divided into three sections. What are they about?

A In the first section you have artistic events that embrace news like Andy Warhol's "16 Jackies," showing images of Jackie Kennedy after the assassination, and Robert Rauschenberg's collages of newspaper photos and stories, and Andreas Gursky's "Klitschko," a huge 1999 photo of a prizefight. The second section is about art as a performance, a transitory act, and will have a lot of film and performances booked into it. The third will be more about putting viewers into the event. For example, there's a spotlight piece by the Argentinian artist David Lamelas that people can step into, almost like being onstage. They're all experiential works but much moodier. It will feel more atmospheric and quieter.

Q What other changes are you planning?

A We're planning to have performances in the galleries and to include screening rooms for our film collection. We have more than 850 titles -- classic, contemporary, documentary and avant-garde films and videos -- that haven't been integrated into a collection based installation before, so we're gong to show films by Bruce Conner, Derek Jarman, Chris Marker and Yoko Ono.

Q Are there any surprises in store?

A I plan to have a section I'm calling "Benches and Binoculars" that will be a floor-to-ceiling installation of early works from the collection.

Q Will you include Franz Marc's "Large Blue Horses," which has been in storage for years?

A The "Blue Horses" will run through at some point in the next few years. We are looking to re-hang at some moment some Walker favorites, including Edward Hopper's "Office at Night" and the Franz Marc, the two that come up most frequently.

Q How much of the collection will be on view?

A About 120 or so works out of about 10,000 in the collection.

Q Are you working on plans for the garden and the hillside behind the Walker?

A Yes. We're all thinking about how to take advantage of this huge open slope that can really be used by artists. There are different ideas from different departments. Do we want a structure? We've just started talking about this, but it's very much on our minds, as is the front facade of the Walker.

Q What surprised you about the Twin Cities?

A I was surprised at how complicated the highway system is here, and by the weather, even though I was warned. It's unbelievable. I was completely unprepared.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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