Everyone wants to be loved, even museums like Walker Art Center. Over the past 70 years the Walker has staged shows, printed brochures, thrown parties, organized exhibitions and even enlarged its building in an effort to seduce the public into loving it.

The most ambitious project was the $136 million 2005 expansion that added a multitude of amenities (theater, restaurant, bookshop, lobbies, parking ramp) intended to transform the Walker into a "town square" where people would turn up spontaneously for "informal conversation, interactive learning, community gatherings, and pure pleasure." Didn't happen. People come, of course, but to take in a film or see some art, not to hang out and chew the fat about the issues of the day. Even the restaurant recently dropped its evening hours for want of business.

In a fascinating new show, "It Broke From Within," London-based Polish artist Goshka Macuga probes the Walker's collection and archives to try to understand the institution and its place in the community. Her installation incorporates telling bits of the Walker's history -- art, photos, documents -- that highlight the museum's often unrealized and contradictory aspirations. It even includes a platform, custom-built for the exhibition, featuring "conversation pits" that were proposed for the 2005 addition but eliminated from the design.

"My interest was in the expansion of the building," said Macuga in a recent interview. "Walker has an ideology of openness to the community and giving voice to people to come here and use the space as their own. I wanted to know how that works. Maybe the nature of Minneapolis is that people don't do that, but I would hope that people will make use of the space."

Woven history

The eye-catching centerpiece of her project is a tapestry, 14 feet tall and 50 feet long, that she had woven in Belgium. In it, characters from the Walker's past -- artists Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, four of its five directors, founder T.B. Walker -- meet a couple of Cass Lake Indian kids, Tea Party protesters, Uncle Sam and a Vietnam vet in a patch of virgin forest in northern Minnesota. Macuga and Walker staff took photos of the forest site and then Photoshopped historic images into a composite picture, carefully adjusting for scale and patterns of light and shade.

The Big Woods setting is emblematic of the forests from which Walker, a 19th-century lumber magnate, made the fortune that still endows the museum. Cutting down northern Minnesota's trees was one example of the Manifest Destiny myth on which the American Dream is built; as the trees fell, Walker's fortune rose, and he bought art voraciously, though not always wisely. The present Walker Art Center is vastly different from the Moorish museum and traditional collection that its founder left when he died in 1928. Since the 1940s, when the Walker refocused on modern and contemporary art, virtually all of Walker's art has been sold to other institutions, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which has lent a Thomas Cole landscape representative of his holdings.

Other items chosen by Macuga amplify the frontier and lumber-industry themes inherent in the Walker's origins: a Berenice Abbott photo of a woman at work in a plywood factory; a Sherrie Levine painting on a slab of plywood; a cowboy silhouette by Minneapolis artist David Rathman; documentation of a 1990 installation by Edgar Heap of Birds protesting the 1862 execution of Dakota warriors in Mankato, and so on.

From Poland to Minneapolis

The Walker show marks Macuga's U.S. debut. Raised in Poland, where she studied exhibition design, Macuga moved to London in 1989 after the death of her father. After earning a post-graduate degree in art from the University of London, she has exhibited internationally, including the 2009 Venice Biennale and recent shows at Tate Britain and the Kunsthalle in Basel, Switzerland.

Like the politically provocative German-American artist Hans Haacke, and the more scientifically inclined American artist Mark Dion, Macuga examines institutions' histories in order to shed light on their intersection with contemporary political and social issues.

Her first visit to Minneapolis last year coincided with a Tea Party protest at the State Capitol. Having followed the Tea Party from abroad, Macuga went to the protest to try to assess the party's goals and how the protesters' ideas of "freedom" compared with artists' notions of "freedom of expression." By coincidence, the event occurred on the same plaza where a Walker-sponsored work caused a ruckus in 1970 as part of a show of outdoor sculpture. So her photos of Tea Party protesters got woven into her tapestry of Walker's history.

The show's enigmatic title, "It Broke From Within," comes from a 1941 Walker membership brochure that struck a patriotic note at the beginning of World War II by recalling the ignominious surrender of France to the Nazis the year before. In hyperbolic prose, the brochure warned that "civic institutions, of which the art center is one," were essential bulwarks against threats to American freedoms.

In succeeding decades the Walker positioned itself as a champion of unconventional artistic liberties, endorsing the work of the iconoclastic Duchamp and "social sculptor" Beuys, who hoped to transform society through art. By reexamining that very unfinished history, Macuga astutely questions again what place art, and the Walker, occupy in our civic life.

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431