Last year, Walker Art Center gave bad-boy provocateur John Waters the keys to its collection, inviting the director of "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray" to be a guest curator and fill its galleries as he saw fit.

Waters says people still come up to him in New York asking about his Minneapolis adventure. "What I was so pleased about was how excited they were about my ideas," he said recently. "It wasn't a matter of them saying yes. They actually encouraged me to go even further" -- like audio tours in Pig Latin.

"How many museums would let you do that?" Waters asked.

Not many. But the Walker isn't a typical museum. Some of its curators even cringe when someone refers to it as a "museum." (Don't worry, John, you can call it whatever you want.)

Its long history as a risk-taker has propelled the Walker's profile far beyond its silvery walls. Its events are routinely mentioned in the national press. It has 300,000-plus followers on Twitter -- more than Timberwolves superstar Kevin Love.

How does an art center in the middle of the country cast such a long shadow? And how does it maintain its cachet of cool?

The galleries are only part of the equation. On a recent night, visitors packed its McGuire Theater for a sold-out show by a superstar Indian-American jazz pianist. In its restaurant, Gather, acclaimed local chef Russell Klein was guest-starring in the kitchen, pumping out free oysters and frog legs. A few days later, its cinema hosted Hollywood legend Harry Belafonte.

"In my mind, the Walker sort of occupies a singular space in the art world," said Claudia La Rocco, who writes about dance for the New York Times. In contrast with New York, where larger museums have been slow to adopt performing arts, the Walker is viewed as a leader in the field, she said.

Its performing arts curator, Philip Bither, commands a $1.8 million annual budget, second only to the gallery exhibitions. When the Walker opened its much-hyped expansion in 2005, dance and experimental theater got greater emphasis. Half of its 30-plus performances last year were commissioned pieces.

The Walker long has been a powerhouse in preserving and promoting film, too. Its Regis Dialogues have hosted such master directors as Joel and Ethan Coen, Milos Forman and Clint Eastwood.

Thanks to a recent $1 million gift, the cinema will be renovated this summer with state-of-the-art sound and picture (even 3-D!). The Walker also will digitize its large collection of rare films.

Then there's Rock the Garden. With Minnesota Public Radio's 89.3 theCurrent as a partner, the annual summertime concert sold out 10,000 tickets in 90 minutes earlier this month.

Globe-trotting, for art's sake

Getting young folks to come out for an all-star rock lineup is one thing. Bither has made a career of filling seats for hard-to-define performance art. (Did you see Young Jean Lee's all-nude feminist piece in January?)

At least one week a month, Bither is on the road, searching for emerging artists.

"I'm like a missionary," he said.

Travel is a critical piece of Walker programming, said chief curator Darsie Alexander. She recently flew to India. Bither just got back from South Africa. Film curator Sheryl Mousley will tour European festivals later this year.

"We get around," Alexander said.

In Delhi, she attended the massive India Art Fair. But discoveries happen elsewhere, too. "It's the dinners you share, the cab rides you get lost on and the places you wind up together," she said.

Sharing a cab one night, she ended up on the roof of a nightclub, watching a performance piece by renowned sculptor Subodh Gupta. It got her thinking about multi-disciplinary artists.

The Walker's gallery exhibitions travel as well. Its latest hit, "Lifelike," has wowed audiences with its contemplative question: What is reality? Works include 12-foot-high folding chairs and elevator doors fit for a cat. The exhibition closes May 27 but will live on with showings in New Orleans, San Diego and Austin, Texas.

Courtship rituals

The Walker helped put itself on the map by embracing such artists as dance legend Merce Cunningham early on. Bither recalls Cunningham's monumental "Ocean" -- staged in a quarry near St. Cloud in 2008 -- as one of the most important moments in his life, next to the birth of his two children.

The Walker builds relationships with certain performers in what can amount to a long courtship. Last month, Marc Bamuthi Joseph -- whose matrix of hip-hop, theater and spoken word first touched down on the Walker's stage in 2007 -- performed the interactive spectacle "red, black & GREEN: a blues." To prepare for the show, the Oakland-based performer was a Walker artist-in-residence in 2011. He toured impoverished neighborhoods and met with community leaders to research environmental justice. His art is difficult to put into a single box, Bither said, but Bither loves the challenge of giving an audience the chance to experience something they otherwise wouldn't see.

According to La Rocco of the New York Times, "If Philip Bither says 'I'm supporting this art' and the Walker puts its full weight behind it, it's a good seal of approval."

The same can be said for John Waters. His takeover of the Walker garnered rave reviews from across the country.

Waters has since moved on, but Minnesota is still on his mind.

To find what's cool, Minnesotans "don't need to leave home.," Waters said. "You don't need to go to L.A. or New York anymore. You haven't for a long time."

Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909 • Twitter: @tomhorgen