Name changes always signal something’s afoot.
When Walker Art Galleries changed its moniker to Walker Art Center on Jan. 4, 1940, something new was definitely in the making. With the new identity came a new director, new contemporary art, new educational programs, new public funding and a whole new idea of what art could — and should — be in Minnesota.
That was 75 years ago, and to mark the occasion Walker Art Center is launching a yearlong anniversary celebration that starts this weekend. Besides opening two new exhibitions it’s throwing a free Walktoberfest bash that runs through Sunday. There will, of course, be beer. And family fun. And music. And selfies and history hijinks.
All that frivolity is a big change from the fusty Victorian manners of 1879 when founder T.B. Walker first invited Minneapolitans into his Hennepin Avenue mansion to see his art. Back then, after they rang a bell, a maid would show them in.
Images of the crusty old lumber baron frame “Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections,” the handsome and thoughtfully eclectic show that kicks off the celebration. A mere bonsai sample of the center’s 11,000-piece collection, the display fills three galleries with about 100 key paintings, sculptures, photos, collages, installations and films arranged in loosely chronological order, pegged to the four directors who led the institution from 1940 to 2007. It runs through September 2016.
“We tried to make selections that underscore the spirit, values and artists the Walker has supported,” Viso said. “So even through they’re not comprehensive, together they give you insights into how the collection has grown over time.”
T.B. Walker’s legacy
In the main show, T.B. Walker himself features in a 1915 portrait, a theatrical scrim, an immense modern tapestry and a remarkable bit of silent news film. In the latter, Walker is seen welcoming visitors to the grand Moorish-style museum that he opened in 1927 after his collection outgrew his home. Built on the site of the present center, the museum housed his collection of French and American landscapes, Chinese jade, African carvings and American Indian artifacts.
Virtually all the art he once owned is now gone from the Walker, sold off after the center shifted to contemporary art in the 1940s. The “Jade Mountain,” a 1784 Chinese imperial treasure that once graced Walker’s dining table, is now owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which has loaned it for this show.
Economics and opportunity drove the change. After Walker died in 1928, his museum and the family foundation that supported it struggled through the Depression. In the late 1930s, when the federal government offered cities around the country matching money to start community art centers, Walker’s heirs and a group of Minnesota artists and citizens signed on.
The newly christened Walker Art Center became the last and largest of the 37 art centers launched with federal support. Many of its current priorities were set by its first director, Daniel Defenbacher, who championed contemporary art, showed films, offered art classes for kids and adults, and promoted good design in an “everyday art” gallery. From the beginning, the new Walker featured art by women and black artists ignored elsewhere, mixed international talents with Americans, and pushed aesthetic and political boundaries.
In 1942 the Walker bought what is still its most famous painting, “The Large Blue Horses,” by Franz Marc, a German artist whom Hitler had denounced as degenerate. It was the Walker’s first modern purchase and a local newspaper took note in an article that taunted the Nazi dictator: “Hey, Adolf — Minneapolis has those ‘Blue Horses’ you didn’t like.”
“Defenbacher was a visionary with a very strong educational mission,” Viso said. “And the ‘Blue Horses’ was a very bold first acquisition.”
In addition to the “Blue Horses,” the first gallery spotlights important paintings and sculpture acquired by Defenbacher and his successor, Harvey Arneson (1950-60). Many are modestly scaled masterpieces by Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Joan Mitchell, Charles Sheeler, David Smith, Paul Manship, George Tooker and other Americans. Sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, Jean Arp, Rudolf Belling and others adds European flavor.
In the next gallery, the 30-year directorship of Martin Friedman (1961-90) begins with a bang: Chuck Close’s huge and gritty self-portrait, his cigarette and unkempt hair signs of those unruly times.
A champion of Pop and Minimalism, Friedman is represented by such classics as Andy Warhol’s “Sixteen Jackies,” Robert Indiana’s “Eat” and “Die” paintings, and sculpture that ranges from a fierce Lee Bontecou wall piece to a stack of sleek Donald Judd boxes and a tower of Nam June Paik television sets on which images of the Mississippi alternate with abstract squiggles. A small gallery traces the 50-year evolution of the influential Walker periodical Design Quarterly.
Compared with the elegantly crafted above-the-sofa-sized paintings and salon-scale sculpture of previous decades, art from the Friedman era is big, brash, untidy and experimental. There are “paintings” and sculpture made of draped felt, stained canvas, body prints and polished steel. All that mirrors a rougher, more physical and irreverent time when American mass media and popular culture swaggered onto the world stage.
Kathy Halbreich, director from 1990 to 2007, prided herself on the Walker’s internationalism, multimedia edginess and unblinking embrace of controversy. Her acquisitions often reflected those priorities, but the third gallery represents her era with quieter works including a Dan Graham installation, a Sherrie Levine urinal, a celebrity portrait by Elizabeth Peyton and an elegiac waterscape by Kerry James Marshall. Films by Kara Walker flicker in a booth and videos by various artists will be shown in a time capsule about the “Culture Wars” that roiled the American political scene then.
The time spans are not tidy, however. Acquisitions overlap directors and mix eras. Photography is underrepresented and prints, drawings and other works-on-paper are not much in evidence.
Nevertheless, as a snapshot of an evolving collection at the 75-year mark, the show makes a persuasive case that the Walker has a rich history and a hoard of masterpieces that should be on view more often. Enjoy them while they’re visible.