At “Winter Walkerland,” next weekend’s celebration of the Walker Art Center’s 75th anniversary, visitors will hear lectures on “75 Gifts for 75 Years,” take part in family art making, skate on a temporary ice rink in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and warm up afterward at a specialty cocoa bar — or at Thursday’s opening-night party, a vodka ice bar.
The festive atmosphere and free admission (and ubiquitous cellphone cameras) should yield lots of shots of friends, families and, of course, selfies. Some photos may themselves become art, at least on the Walker website’s “crowdsourced compendium of Walker’s history from the ground up,” which consists of pictures of patrons in the gallery or the garden throughout the years.
The compendium is called the Walker People’s Archive, or WPA. The acronym isn’t an anachronism. It intentionally invokes the initials used to describe the Works Progress (later Projects) Administration, the New Deal-era federal program promoting employment.
The WPA is mostly known for building bridges, roads and other infrastructure. But along with pouring concrete, it invested in the abstract, through the Federal Art Project (FAP). The FAP hired visual artists, actors, writers and musicians. And beyond individuals, it invested in institutions, too, including, most notably, the Walker Art Center through its Community Art Center program.
To qualify, a local sponsor would form a committee to hold a fundraising campaign to raise a quarter of the cost. The WPA was good for the remaining 75 percent. Under the program’s leader, Daniel Defenbacher, more than 70 community art centers were established nationally.
The biggest was the Walker. Serendipity played a part. A visionary group, the Minnesota Art Council, already existed. A site, the T.B. Walker Gallery, was available. And soon so, too, was Defenbacher, who resigned his WPA post and became the first director of the Walker Art Center. Just as essential among the notable names were everyday Minnesotans who prioritized art as part of recovering from a devastating depression.
To rally support and raise funds, a brochure was created. It showed an image of the existing, stately Walker Gallery, located at the prime location on the edge of downtown Minneapolis where the current Walker Art Center now stands. And the brochure humanized the cause by showing an image of a young boy intently interested in the art he himself was creating. In capital letters it asked for capital funds by provocatively challenging Minneapolitans with this question:
THE CITIZENS OF MINNEAPOLIS ARE OFFERED A COMMUNITY CENTER FOR ART AND OTHER ACTIVITIES
SHALL WE TAKE IT?
They took it, raising the $5,500 dollars — a significant sum in the teeth of the Great Depression — which triggered the federal match of $35,000.
The optimism of Minnesotans and a federal government willing to invest not just in “shovel-ready projects” but in projecting art to economically stressed citizens is still striking.
That spirit still reverberates today, according to Olga Viso, the Walker’s executive director. “All the values that we associate with the Walker today in terms of being multidisciplinary, forward-thinking, artist-centric, experimental, interested in forging public dialogues around creative and artistic freedom,” she said in an interview, “all those things were born in that art-center birth moment.”
“Forging public dialogues” was clearly important to the Walker’s founders. They didn’t flinch from the chasm of haves and have-nots exposed by and to the tough times, but addressed the era’s socioeconomic differences directly in the brochure: “It will be a forum and artistic melting pot for the white collar worker and day laborer, for everybody interested in cultural improvement through the arts. It will be a solvent for interclass misunderstanding that will help revive the faith of Minneapolis and its neighbors in Minneapolis. A large gift and small civic investment, with incalculable dividends.”
Indeed, the dividends are incalculable. The Walker helps define Minneapolis as an artistic mecca not just nationally, but globally. The adjacent Sculpture Garden, owned by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and operated in partnership with the Walker, is the site of “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” which has helped sculpt the international image of Minneapolis. In fact it’s the backdrop of so many photos that some may end up in the Walker People’s Archive.
Intentionally or incidentally, art can be uncomfortable, even controversial. And public spending on arts can be even more so, especially in today’s Great Recession era, when income inequality is high but trust in government much lower than it was in the original WPA’s time.
Yet Minnesotans still seem to hear and heed the lofty ambitions of that Depression-era brochure. On Tuesday, renderings of the revamp of the Sculpture Garden were released. They showed proposed changes coming from a public investment of $10 million for the site, which saw about 26 percent more visitors last year alone.
So reinvesting in such a treasured civic space somehow seems not surprising, but instead just Minnesotans’ latest wise “yes” to that key question of 75 years ago.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.