Whoever becomes Walker Art Center’s next executive director may have some house cleaning to do, but at least they won’t literally have to renovate the house.
That task consumed Olga Viso through much of her 10-year tenure at the Walker. By the time she resigned earlier this winter, she’d rebuilt the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, rebricked the old museum building, carved out a new entrance and restaurant on Vineland Place and raised $78 million to pay for it all.
As the Walker gears up its search for Viso’s successor, the challenge will be less about space and more about people, both inside and outside the art center’s walls, according to more than 15 players in the local and national art scene interviewed for this story.
The next executive director will need to mend relationships while bolstering the Walker’s reputation as a world-renowned center for contemporary art of all kinds.
Internally, Viso was criticized by some Walker board members for high staff turnover and low morale. And the controversy over “Scaffold” that marred last summer’s reopening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden — an event that should have been her shining moment — pointed to the need for greater awareness of local cultural issues.
“You need to have somebody who can maintain the international reputation of the institution but at the same time connect with all aspects of local community — not just donors — and do it authentically, in a way that actually matters,” said Scott Stulen, director of the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Okla., who worked at the Walker from 2008-14 and produced its popular Internet Cat Video Festival. “That’s not gonna happen in a year. It’s got to be someone who can really put in the work and knows it can take a decade.”
Last week the Walker engaged the New York recruiting firm of Phillips Oppenheim, which specializes in nonprofit organizations; its clients include the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rockefeller Foundation. It will guide the center’s board of trustees in writing a description for the ideal candidate, said board president Monica Nassif. In the meantime, four longtime administrators are serving as an interim “Executive Office” to run the institution.
The center is gearing up for some big exhibits, including conceptual artist Allen Ruppersberg’s first major retrospective, “Intellectual Property 1968-2018,” opening March 17, and a solo exhibition of work by jazz pianist/interdisciplinary artist Jason Moran on April 26 — projects in the works long before Viso left. It’s a reminder that at heart she was a curator and scholar who helped keep the Walker on the cutting edge with shows of international artists such as Nairy Baghramian, Jim Hodges and Guillermo Kuitca, and exhibitions like “International Pop,” “Adios, Utopia” and “Merce Cunningham: Common Time.”
Nassif calls the job “a plum assignment,” noting that “it’s an exciting time to be here.”
The Walker would not discuss its timeline for the hire, but such a search typically takes three to four months, said Lars Leafblad, co-founder of the St. Paul-based executive-search firm Ballinger Leafblad. He guessed the board might consider a list of candidates in April, with a new executive director in place no sooner than early summer — especially if it’s a national candidate with family considerations.
The role of museum directors has changed since the Walker last had to fill this job.
“The most important skill for museum directors today is agility,” said Minneapolis Institute of Art Director Kaywin Feldman. “It used to be that a director was hired to ‘keep on keepin’ on’ — maintain the status quo while also growing the building and collections. Today, what we do with the buildings — and the collections that we maintain in trust for our communities — is much more important.”
Feldman noted that, while she started her job the same year as Viso, the institute had already completed a major building project. As a result, she could direct her energy toward programming. Through such shows as last year’s popular Martin Luther and Guillermo del Toro exhibits, Feldman has increased audiences and reshaped the museum’s identity.
In a sort of museum parallel, that is the opportunity the Walker now has.
Opening the ‘closed door’
Last year’s “Scaffold” controversy highlighted a blind spot for the institution.
Viso admitted she didn’t anticipate how Minnesotans — Native Americans in particular — might react to Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant’s “Scaffold,” modeled on the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
Ronald P. Leith, a Dakota elder who joined in negotiations with the Walker to dismantle and remove the sculpture, sees the problem as systemic: “For whatever reason, Walker developed a system wherein they’re sort of isolated from people of color, community-based organizations — maybe even some artistic organizations — so it’s been sort of a closed-door practice.”
Leith envisions the executive director’s role as “more than just an administrator,” but rather someone who “is willing to put feet on the ground and communicate with the community in such a way that the Walker Art Center begins to understand what types of sensitive dynamics are taking place in the community.”
Some in the Native American community worried that Viso’s departure might jeopardize the progress they felt the Walker had made in understanding their issues. Nassif and the center’s leaders addressed that concern with a recent open letter posted on the Walker’s website.
“Despite the recent leadership transition at the Walker, the desire for positive change, both among its board and its staff, has not wavered,” they wrote. “We’ve been deeply and quietly engaged in both the institutional soul-searching and the important work necessary to bring forth that change.”
They pointed to an “inadequate” system of checks and balances that failed to anticipate the problems with “Scaffold,” and said the institution was working on systemic changes, including “new protocol” for artwork in public spaces and “a Native advisory group” that will help commission a new work by a Native American artist for the Walker collection.
The Walker declined to elaborate on these changes, but its message was clear: “We are committed to proceed with greater sensitivity.”
For their part, non-Native artists also see connecting locally as a paramount issue.
The Walker’s new director needs to “come in with a clear understanding of the history of the [museum] space and how the community has changed,” said Twin Cities artist Joe Sinness. “Who is the community made up of now? Who are those contacts?”
Staying on the world stage
At the same time, the Walker needs to stay focused on its mission of engaging visitors with world-class art, say Minnesota arts leaders.
“You have to be just as knowledgeable about the wide world as well as the regional and local right outside your doorstep. That’s challenging,” said Kristin Makholm, executive director at the Minnesota Museum of American Art.
Weisman Art Museum executive director Lyndel King — who jokingly refers to herself as the “grandmother” of the scene, having led the museum for nearly 40 years — views the Walker job from a long-game perspective. She sees its challenges and opportunities as “two sides of the same coin in a sense — not pulling back from being experimental, and operating on the experimental-art-world stage with an awareness of the environment.”
Outside the Twin Cities, members of the international art community took note of the conversation around the Walker and “Scaffold.”
“Sensitivity to local culture is going to be essential, as evidenced by the Sam Durant controversy,” said Annie Wharton, a Los Angeles-based art consultant. “But if the Walker wishes to maintain an ideal of being a world-class institution, they will need to bring in someone with a global vision for their future.”
A new director is just a start, though. The Walker’s next hires are nearly as critical, considering the large number of key staff members who have left in the past couple of years, including design director Andrew Blauvelt and chief curator Fionn Meade.
“They have some gaping holes right now in their programming department,” said Alyssa Baguss, an artist who previously interned in the Walker’s education department. “Not only [do they need someone] to run one of the top contemporary art museums and also connect with community, but also to unify the people who work there — who in my experience are really passionate about what they do.”
It’s that passion that Minneapolis artist/dancer Kristin Van Loon felt from Viso — and hopes to see in her successor, too.
“Early on in Olga’s tenure, she did a talk about the artist Ana Mendieta,” said Van Loon. “It was a quiet lecture/slide show kind of thing. I found it hugely inspiring.
“This opportunity to see the Walker executive director’s passion and scholarship is the kind of thing I hope for with the new E.D. — to sustain and express that deeply personal love of art and artists, while taking care of the big picture.”
Staff writer Jenna Ross contributed to this article.