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If ambiguity was something that could be seen or touched, it might have a tangible yet enigmatic effect. Perhaps it would be like a fragile lantern lit from within, neither solid nor translucent, with angles of light taking shape through sudden rips of fabric. Or perhaps it would be a metallic cube hovering over the ground like an imbalanced weight, yet with a surface as seemingly delicate as crumpled paper. Or perhaps it would be a cold glass entrance with ice rock chandeliers, where luscious, decorative folds in white walls peek through. Maybe, in short, ambiguity would take the shape of the new Walker Art Center’s expansion.
“More than a museum” is the catchphrase for this new Walker as it unveils its expanded size and reconceived programming. The Walker Art Center, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is already recognized internationally as a singular model for multidisciplinary arts organizations and as a national leader in innovative approaches to audience engagement. Adjacent to the Walker is the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, one of the nation’s largest urban sculpture parks. In the words of Walker Director Kathy Halbreich, the new Walker that has now reopened after a year of construction is “an institutional space that we had never seen before . . . a model twenty-first-century arts center.” Unfortunately, the Walker partially undermines the significance of this space by prematurely putting an intellectual label on it.
What Halbreich stresses in particular is the Walker as a place for social interaction and open experiences. “Here’s my simple story,” she said during a local interview concerning the expansion. “I believe that if the Mall of America is about the consumption of things, a cultural institution like the Walker—if it is properly designed and programmed and inviting enough—can be about the consumption of ideas.”
The central symbol of the new Walker’s story is a shimmering cube that architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have poised over Hennepin Avenue. This is where the imposed meanings begin. While the architects view Hennepin as an iconically vibrant urban street, locals know it as an eight-lane thoroughfare. Just as most people avoid this empty entrance, one might avoid a narrative decided too early and too simply.
Known for commissioning and presenting innovative contemporary art of the last fifty years, the Walker Art Center has nearly doubled the size of the existing facility by creating additional galleries in which to exhibit the museum’s growing collection. It has also added a 385-seat theater, computer stations with online access to the Walker, an expanded library, a new art lab for hands-on cultural experiences for people of all ages, and a teen center to house the museum’s model program for youth. Yet to be built is a four-acre public park, which was postponed when the building’s costs went over budget.
Theaters, labs, and computer installations are all elements common to most new museum projects trying to reflect the multidisciplinary focus of their programming and of the many hybrid forms utilized by practicing artists—for example, dancers incorporating film and musicians using dance. In particular, the new William and Nadine McGuire Theater is equipped with the stage size and technological capacity normally found in a one-thousand-seat performance space. The unusual design will enable performers to present ambitious and technically complex works in an intimate setting. The theater will also serve as a “research and development” space for new pieces, expanding the Walker’s ability to commission works, support the development of groundbreaking performances, and foster mutual inspiration among film/video, new media, visual, and performing artists.
Opening weekend showcased the theater with daylong performances by Philip Glass and Meredith Monk, among others, as well as building tours and drop-in art labs. At least a thousand people from around the country attended the festivities, and the member’s preview party was filled to the museum’s four-thousand-limit capacity.
The opening also presented throughout the building the diversity of the permanent collection, which has grown 40 percent (to more than 9,600 objects) in the last decade alone. Total exhibition space has increased from 30,000 to 40,000 square feet, creating eleven exhibition galleries and doubling the space allocated to the collection.
The expanded Walker’s inaugural show featured a series of exhibitions rather than a single linear, chronological presentation. For example, one gallery displayed “alternative modernisms,” highlighting Japanese Gutai, Viennese Actionism, Italian Arte Povera, and Fluxus. Another gallery concept, called “Shadowland: An Exhibition as a Film,” shuttles the viewer between painting and film. Chantal Akerman’s film D’Est (1993–95), for instance, plays in looped fragments on multiple monitors in a darkened room, while a nearby Vija Celmins painting of stars deep in the sky seems equally elusive and affecting. One wanders from galleries assembling a variety of artists around conceptual devices such as “Urban Cocktail” and “Mythologies” into single installations devoted to Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, and others with whom the Walker has had long relationships.
In terms of the expansion’s architecture, the comments are similarly wide ranging. New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff thinks the building “hovers at the intersection of urban and suburban cultures,” while the Los Angeles Times’s Christopher Hawthorne remarks that the decorative elements are a bold move for an architect, but not a move that goes very far in Minneapolis. It is unclear whether this example of decorative architecture is a form of irony or an antidote to the original building’s minimalism.
Overall, the expansion reflects an ambiguity running potentially counter to the Walker’s expectations and even its intentions. Are the cantilevered forms bold or tired? Is a chronological display timeless or trendy? Is the collection overcrowded or loaded? The walls leaning this way and that, the continuous slope in the passage from the expansion to the steep staircase of the new building, and the folds of the staircase all seem as much like an M. C. Escher print as an obvious play with structure.
Nevertheless, ambiguity is not an unpleasant experience when contrasted with more common aesthetic phenomena such as easy epiphanies or facile moralizing. Sometimes the similar collections and consumer features of contemporary museums seem all too familiar and clear. An interesting way to think about museums today is to consider a remark by the writer Charles Baxter. Criticizing a story by another writer, he declared that the story “had begun to read itself too early.” It was already always and only about one thing, with the result that all the details fit in perfectly. All the arrows pointed in the same direction. It was too predetermined, too fast. It is important that a museum not decide on its story too early and concentrate too fixedly on that one image. Perhaps a visitor may want to walk into a museum and not even recognize it as such.
In 1991 the Walker mounted an exhibition entitled Architecture of Tomorrow with six different architects or architectural teams. In one of the accompanying essays, George Rand offered that, “Classical buildings are complete unto themselves, whereas contemporary buildings tend to overflow their limits and to breach the boundaries between themselves and other bodies, ignoring the smooth impenetrable surfaces of modern objects. They point to gaps in the completeness of the Apollonian logic employed by the majority in contemporary society.”
If the Walker’s expanded architecture points to gaps, it need not be overly eager to define that new direction. It makes sense that five years into a new century, the future might still be a bit ambiguous. Provide too much prior meaning, and the feeling is one of going backwards.
coeditor of VACUM Attachment, the visual arts supplement to the literary review, Rain Taxi
Walker Art Center. Hennepin entrance with view of restaurant and special events space. April 2005.