Inviting bad-boy filmmaker and cultural provocateur John Waters to reinstall a chunk of its collection was a nervy move by Walker Art Center this year. His "intervention" goosed a place that had been taking itself way too seriously for years. Fortunately, Waters proved to be a smart, savvy curator who kept his grosser instincts in check, and the museum did itself a world of good by letting some of its pretensions go.
Since director Olga Viso hired Darsie Alexander as chief curator three years ago, the Walker has gradually livened up its exhibition program by injecting more fun and play into the mix without pandering to viewers or compromising its cutting-edge reputation.
Early in her tenure, Alexander unearthed a trove of curiosities from the Walker's archives and hung them floor-to-ceiling in an oversized gallery where visitors were given binoculars to peer at them. Next she filled half of that gallery with drawings and prints that Walker members and visitors chose through online voting, and hung the rest of the walls with her own picks from the collection. Rather than trying to protect her own authority, Alexander has welcomed public involvement, encouraged comments and experimented with "crowd curation."
Other museums have invited artists to organize shows, and sometimes allowed them to add their own work into the mix. Few of the artists elsewhere were as potentially disruptive as Waters, whose exhibition, "Absentee Landlord," runs through March 4. He assaulted and undermined the Walker's hauteur on many levels -- by piping the sound of car crashes into elevators and an entrance hall, running saccharine cat-and-dog videos in the galleries, hanging a prized Willem de Kooning drawing at ankle level, and inserting one of his own photos that squirts water at viewers who get too close. Some of his shtick is a bit juvenile, but isn't that a relief after years of shows that enshrined nonsensical art with solemn reverence?
Walker also nurtured its roots in the mid-20th century avant garde by buying a trove of memorabilia -- costumes, props, sets -- from the Merce Cunningham dance company, which is disbanding. It commissioned a fascinating installation by a Polish-born artist, Goshka Macuga, who was refreshingly outspoken in her criticism of the Walker's dysfunctional 2005 building addition.
Not all of its shows hit the mark -- a traveling exhibit of "voyeuristic" photography was over-intellectualized and needlessly boring. But other exhibits were startlingly fresh, among them the colorful and psychologically raw videos of Swedish artist Nathalie Djurberg, accompanied by a zoo-full of her fanciful bird sculptures, and "Baby Marx," a curious installation of political puppets and videos by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes. The Walker also ended the year with a fascinating, and eye-popping, survey of international graphic design that's up through Jan. 22.
Applause all around.
- Weisman Art Museum's smartly expanded building reopened on time and on budget, its sleek and appealing new galleries designed by Frank Gehry and Edwin Chen, who did its original 1993 building.
- The Museum of Russian Art deserves kudos for discovering a first-rank Soviet-era dissident, Oleg Vassiliev, living in suburban St. Paul and still working at 80. His paintings, poetic etchings and screen prints -- on view through Feb. 19 -- are a moving meditation on the plight of individuals caught up in a tragic century of Russian history.
- The Minneapolis Institute of Arts made news with its spring show of Old Master paintings on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland, including a pair of Titian mythologies that had not left the British Isles for 200 years. It hit the headlines again this fall when it voluntarily returned to Italy a Greek vase that recent detective work proved had been looted.
- Artist Jeff Millikan delivered a delightfully droll tribute to the Bell Museum of Natural History, whose century-old collection he photographed and rearranged, showing beetles "escaping" from their boxes and reptiles slithering out of their pickling fluid.
- Groveland Gallery added sizzle to the season with its "summer shorts" shows. Each lasted a mere two weeks and involved a gimmick, such as art in patriotic colors for July 4th or urban scenes all painted on one blistering hot afternoon.
- Weinstein Gallery did a museum-worthy retrospective of photos by Manuel Alvarez Bravo in the spring, followed by a handsome show of David Rathman's ironic watercolors on Western themes. It ended the year with a group show of gallery favorites ranging from local hotshot Alec Soth to national stars Robert Polidori and Annie Leibovitz.