On a chilly spring evening last month, just the sight of a Ferris wheel spinning on the patio raised the party temperature at the opening of Walker Art Center’s “International Pop” show.
Some 1,500 guests sipped craft beers and noshed on tofu dogs and other high-style carnival food as bands jammed, artists high-fived curators, and international collectors mingled with Minneapolis hipsters.
Five years of work had led to this moment. With more than 175 artworks by 100 artists from 20 countries, “International Pop” is the most ambitious, expensive and logistically complex show the Walker has staged in more than a decade.
Virtually all of the center’s 159 staff members had a hand in its production. That includes people who build and paint the walls, set up the film and video installations, write the labels and catalog essays, unpack, inspect and install the art.
Developing shows on this scale requires a veritable village of scholars, curators, writers, packers, movers and fundraisers. They interact with other institutions including insurers, airlines, truckers, caterers, publicists and party planners.
In the beginning: the idea
Darsie Alexander was the Walker’s chief curator in 2010 when she came up with the idea of an international show focused on Pop art.
“I wanted to bring in work that was potent, visually stimulating, relevant and accessible,” said Alexander, now director of the Katonah Art Museum in Katonah, N.Y. “And Pop was a movement that the general public can really relate to.”
Starting with a nucleus of German artists she knew were pioneers of Euro-Pop, Alexander began building lists of appropriate talent. She enlisted Bartholomew Ryan, a young Walker curator grounded in film and video, and began applying for financial support to do further research. Meanwhile, they studied old exhibition catalogs, culled checklists of gallery shows from the 1950s and ’60s, and rediscovered now-forgotten artists mingling with those who are household names.
With a $50,000 travel grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, in 2012 they brought to Minneapolis scholars from the Czech Republic, Germany, Argentina, Japan and elsewhere in the United States to help clarify issues. That money and other grants also enabled Alexander and Ryan to extend their reach by traveling to Europe, Argentina, Brazil and Japan.
“Your research brings you to things,” Alexander said. “There are a lot of hurdles and you have to sniff out the people who hold the knowledge and have access to the art.”
To focus their energies, the pair divided the turf: Alexander concentrated on the United States and Western Europe while Ryan searched South America and Eastern Europe.
Still, there were frustrations.
“At one point I had two days left in Brazil but I couldn’t find the work we wanted,” Ryan recalled over coffee in the Walker’s cafe as workers hustled to complete the installation upstairs.
He had scoured Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third-largest city, a tech and industrial hub with a population of 2.5 million and a rich history of international culture. But nada.
Then “a guy, a collector, picks me up and drives out to the edge of the city, opens the door to this warehouse and there were 100 paintings — great things,” Ryan said. “I’d been looking for one particular work, but we ended up with six or seven in the show from there.”
Even as the curators refined their checklist of objects, the Walker’s staff beavered away on exhibition prep.
Catalog essays were assigned, shipping arrangements made, wallboard and paint ordered, lecturers hired, sponsors solicited — and money was raised.
The Walker declined to say exactly how much the show cost, but “we needed to raise at least $1 million and we were pleased to exceed it,” said Christopher Stevens, the center’s chief of advancement and a 20-year veteran fundraiser.
His team raised $1.3 million in cash plus additional support from eight foundations, 19 individuals, two publications, two hotels, an airline, a bank, a law firm and a food conglomerate.
Plus, the federal government helped indirectly by providing indemnity through the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. The indemnity essentially reduced the cost of insuring the art.
Jessica Rolland, the Walker’s senior associate registrar, was in charge of getting the “I Pop” art labeled, insured, crated, trucked, flown, moved through customs, unpacked, inspected and safely installed in Minneapolis.
“I’m the shepherd for the artwork,” Rolland said as conservators and art handlers bustled about the galleries before the show opened. She carried a thick loose-leaf notebook filled with documents on each object — its title, owner, place of origin, weight, dimensions, insurance terms, display restrictions, and so on.
She made transportation arrangements for the art and also oversaw the travel arrangements of 23 couriers — people who travel with the art — who arrived from 13 countries. Couriers stay with the art at all times, often standing on the airport tarmac watching as it is loaded on and off planes, and then riding in the climate-controlled trucks that drive nonstop to the Walker’s loading dock.
Many of the couriers spoke English or Spanish, but there was one who spoke only Slovakian and French. What to do?
“Fortunately, we had a second courier who does Slovakian and English,” Rolland said.
And when everything was finally installed, lit and labeled, it was party time.
“We always have DJs, a photo booth, an art lab activity and good food,” said Kerstin Beyer, associate director of membership and quasi-official party planner. In this case, the latter meant German, Japanese and Brazilian hot dogs — “hot dogs are the original party food,” she explained. “And also doughnuts, because all these cultures have fried dough.”
And the Ferris wheel, the high striker, and other carnival games on opening night?
“All the major cultures represented have summer carnivals,” she said. “The Ferris wheel has beautiful pastel lights and was just a fun sight for folks who attended the party.”
Leaving the Walker at midnight that evening, a young Minneapolis couple paused at the high striker. Then he hoisted a mallet and, with a swift whack, sent the bell ringing into the darkness.
As onlookers applauded, Mike Francis put down the mallet and laughed.
“I’m a construction worker,” he said. “I swing a hammer. That’s what I do.”