Now that Minneapolis has had a year to live with the Walker...by Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
One year ago the Walker Art Center opened its expanded building to the public. The opening drew thousands of people from around the country, and the world. Reviews called it "striking," "exhilarating," and "masterly." Now that the newness of the building has faded, the Walker is encountering the sometimes hazardous intersection of artistic ideas and practical realities.
St. Paul, Minn. — There's no denying it. It was a big hit. The Walker's opening was a major international event in both in the world of art and architecture. Director Kathy Halbreich says one year later, she's still exhausted, but it's been worth it.
"It's been a dream of a year, more than I think any of us could have ever have imagined," says Halbreich.
As she reflects, Halbreich sits in her office, which is not in the Walker, but across the street from the art center. In truth, the expansion is not done yet; staff offices and the new garden will not be completed until fall.
Still, Halbreich has much to be proud of. The Walker's ticket sales and charitable contributions have both increased. This year the Walker has coordinated five major exhibitions and sent them on tour, including work by well-known artists Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, and Kiki Smith.
Halbreich says the Walker is working hard to export culture, and buoy Minnesota's reputation as a place of innovation.
However it is the nature of the news media to look for flaws. A Minneapolis Star Tribune headline last week read, "Most signs point to success despite flat attendance." A frustrated Halbreich says those figures were taken out of context. She says only five other modern and contemporary art museums in the United States surpass the Walker in attendance.
"And those are in very large markets with a lot of tourists," says Halbreich. "So I think the fact that we are even in that ranking is something for us all to celebrate."
Halbreich says this year the Walker changed the way it counts its patrons. Instead of using a beam that's tripped every time a person walks by, or giving a security guard a counter to click, the Walker now tallies its patrons at the front counter. The result, she says, is more accurate, if less boastful.
However, not everyone who's showing up is happy. Longtime member Sally Strand finds the new Walker aesthetically pleasing, but not user-friendly. Strand attends tours regularly with her friends, and meets them at the museum restaurant for lunch. She says the Walker is a very important part of her life.
But at 62, Strand cannot see as well as she used to. And she has mild fibromyalgia, so she tires easily. She finds visiting the new Walker to be an often exasperating experience.
"We're an aging society," says Strand. "I know that this museum is trying to approach the young, but baby boomers have got the money and will have the time to spend here, and I really think the 55 and up are being ignored."
Strand says the signs throughout the Walker are often in small typeface, and in shades of grey. And while there are many benches in public spaces, there are none to be found in the galleries. So Strand can't sit down and rest while she looks at the artwork; she's obliged to check out a stool at the front desk, which only makes her feel older.
It's not just that she gets tired; she gets lost, too.
"OK, this is the old building," she points down a series of cascading galleries, "and this flows. I can see from this level and down into the next level and on into the third level, so I can easily see what I've already been into or what I want to go to. I don't feel that's the case in the new building."
"We didn't want to create an institution that was about getting to A and B," responds Walker director Kathy Halbreich. "Many of us spend most of our lives getting from A to B. But we wanted to create something that was a little bit more like the experience of walking through a great new city. We wanted people to wander." Halbreich says by wandering, patrons might stumble across things they weren't looking for.
Strand says she understands that, but when she comes to the Walker she often doesn't have time to get lost; she might have only an hour to see an exhibit. Strand says she appreciates subtlety, but she thinks the new Walker is too subtle.
Despite her complaints, Strand still keeps coming back to the Walker.
There are others who won't even open the front door. David Blood walked by the Walker recently on his way home from a job interview. He went to the Walker as a student, but he's not particularly interested in contemporary art. And he says the new building doesn't help.
"I think had they done something crazy, had they used lots of very bright colors, they might have upset their neighbors but I think it would be more of a conversation piece," says Blood. "I think often times that's what modern art is all about, is to get people to look at something and to surprise them, to give them something they would never have expected to see. This, I think, is exactly what you would have expected looking at many other art museums around the world."
An unscientific poll of Minnesota Public Radio listeners found others agreed with Blood's sentiment. They called the building grey, squat and unnatural. They said it didn't sit well with them; it looked like a big nose from one angle, an angry Pac Man head from another.
"I kind of love that," says Walker Director Kathy Halbreich. "We wanted to create an institution that was open to interpretation, so Pac Man makes me laugh. I think it's great!"
Halbreich says she's glad to hear not everyone likes the new Walker; she says if everyone liked it, it would have to be pretty boring.
As for finding one's way around the new building, Halbreich admits there have been some problems. But she says the Walker staff are listening to patrons and making changes. They're just completing a new, simplified map of the building, and they're looking at getting some new furniture.
Asked whether in retrospect she would do anything differently, Halbreich says it's too soon to tell.
"We're still really learning how to play this instrument," says Halbreich, "so the music coming out of it may be daring and dashing and mesmerizing, but it may not be its most elegant."
Nor is it a tune that everyone finds inviting. Halbreich says inevitably when dealing with new ideas, there are going to be skeptics. She regrets their skepticism, but she hopes the Walker's new, more open design, will one day draw them in.
- Morning Edition, 04/17/2006, 6:50 a.m.