PRINT April 2005


Steven Henry Madoff on the Walker Art Center

WHAT IS THE ROLE of today’s art museum? Is it a storehouse, a place for viewers deep in introspection to stand before works of art, a site of self-discovery? Or is it a place for group interaction, a mall, a social club, an entertainment zone? These are the questions facing the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis this month as it opens its bigger, better, and considerably shinier $67.5 million expansion designed by Herzog & de Meuron, and Kathy Halbreich, the Walker’s director, has answers to give.

Her ideas, along with the broader ramifications on museum practice that the Walker’s new building represents, bear directly on two very real pressures for museums: how best to show their collections and how to keep people coming back to look at them. Those pressures are forcing directional shifts in approach at contemporary institutions as far-flung as the Walker, Tate Modern in London, and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

The Walker addresses these pressures by offering itself up not as a closed box but as a physically and intellectually permeable one. To begin in the least abstract terms, the Walker has augmented its 1971 building, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, with a structure that doubles its total space to 260,000 square feet, including a shop, a restaurant, education facilities, and 40,000 square feet of new and renovated galleries for temporary art shows and installations from its permanent collection, which holds some 9,700 works. The building is lean and angular, with large windows and steel panels on the facade that reflect the sun, the weather, and “the sense of contemporary culture’s unstable, always-changing nature,” in Halbreich’s phrase. A four-acre park created by the Parisian landscape designer Michel Desvigne will adjoin the Walker’s eleven-acre sculpture garden. A new 385-seat theater comes with the package, along with—and crucially—various social spaces that adjoin the art spaces, lounges where people gather and, presumably, communities coalesce.

“The Barnes building is terrific for showing art inside, but it’s very hermetic. There are hardly any windows in it,” Halbreich commented. “Herzog & de Meuron introduced incredible transparency. We reoriented the museum toward the busiest street in Minneapolis and away from the garden to suggest that we’re integrated into the city and that the new museum is a less-closed experience.”

Halbreich was confident that she, her deputy director and chief curator Richard Flood, and the architects could fashion great galleries, and they turned their attention almost obsessively to the public spaces. How could they create an experience that in some way resembles city life and sidewalk cafés—a place that people wander through, stopping for a while and then walking more, happening on ideas and inspiration as they go?

“Urban design is entering into the design of museums, with a real sensitivity to streets and plazas, of moving away from rigid structures,” Halbreich said. “And these all reflect the open notion of the artist’s intervention in the world, not just art made for the white cube and the black box.”

The programming that launches the expansion leans hard into the curves of what it means to be a multidisciplinary arts center, not just a museum. In the art department, the curators have decided to highlight the strengths of a modernist collection that isn’t encyclopedic, focusing attention on the Walker’s best—and less mainstream—holdings in a series of temporary shows that includes an intriguing survey of “alternative modernisms,” featuring Japanese Gutaï, Viennese Actionism, Italian arte povera, and Fluxus. “Shadowland: An Exhibition as a Film” edges closer to the multidisciplinary with a load of propositions about dislocation, identity, urban space, and humanism in artworks that shuttle between the flatness of the picture plane and the movie screen. There will be a Latin American film series, dance by Bill T. Jones, a three-day festival celebrating the music of Ornette Coleman, and what promises to be a lot of hanging out.

Halbreich talks a great deal about the convergence of disciplines and the convening of people at the Walker. As she and Flood see it, the renovation is all about social space, signaling a fundamental shift in the way art is presented: no more neatly resolved meanings projected at the viewer in hushed rooms but instead an open-ended conversation with an audience that’s courted, engaged, made at ease.

Flood put it bluntly: “Everyone’s played with their collections and told people what they’re looking at. You need more than a new approach to labels. The baseline is not how the museum has changed but how the public has changed. It’s fine to say the museum is a transcendent space and that it’s about surrendering to the senses and the mind, but at the same time the entertainment factor has to be acknowledged—and that’s a huge sea change. If you ignore the public by just opening your galleries, you’re dead.”

As final as that sounds, it’s only the beginning of the conversation. The Walker as a twenty-first-century institution sees itself as a society—or (to put it in twenty-first-century terms) as a social network seeking to find its clients’ affinities in order to maintain and expand its web. But this isn’t a virtual domain, and the ambition of the museum as a physical place yields different complexities. Those complexities are pressing museums, particularly ones in the midst of expansion projects and reinstallations, to rethink what their building does, who it serves, and how it serves them.

“The debate about the museum as a space for social interaction is very much on our minds, as I know it is at the Walker,” Sheena Wagstaff, the head of Exhibitions and Displays at Tate Modern, said recently. Wagstaff has been thinking hard about alternatives to the traditional museum model as she and her staff plan their own reinstallation of the Tate’s collections for the first time since its opening (in another Herzog & de Meuron building) five years ago. “The museum as it stands in relation to its immediate community is perhaps harder for us to serve, because we have so many international visitors and so many audiences among them with a huge rate of churn. And, of course, if you work your programs and spaces around any one audience, you end up with a totalitarian design—one approach fits all. The question is, which approach for which objects for which audiences?”

Wagstaff noted that in the ’60s many artists began making work founded in social interaction; art created in reaction to the sense that museum culture had become hidebound and inflexible. This social art, which led to the “relational aesthetics” of the 1990s, demands that the notion of fixed objects and fixed spaces be unfixed, be opened out. Now museums have to adapt to this idea and keep on adapting.

“The truth is that you cannot choreograph every piece of the architecture,” Wagstaff said. “In a very bizarre way, spaces, particularly distinctive ones like the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, take on collective memories of their own. That was the case with Olafur Eliasson’s installation last year, The Weather Project. We saw the way people interacted there, lying on the floor, which had never happened before. Next we installed Bruce Nauman’s Raw Materials [2004], and the same social interaction continued, even though the work is entirely different. The audience and the art change each other, and the building has to follow.”

That may be a difficult paradox for the long list of modern and contemporary art museums that have supersized themselves, with their brand-name architects and monolithic destination buildings of brick, titanium, and steel. Yet the emerging shape of museum practice in the new century is summed up in a single sentence by Lars Nittve, the director of Moderna Museet: “The building is not the museum, it’s an activity, a group of activities.” When the Moderna Museet closed its doors for renovations between 2002 and 2004, it began what Nittve calls a “despatialized” program of loaning works, mobile exhibitions traveling around Sweden in an “expomobile,” and lightning-quick temporary shows, each one exactly thirteen days, in a small space that the museum opened in Stockholm. The museum, Nittve said, became a truly national institution as its art, no longer confined to its home building, appeared in far-flung places around the country.

Contemporary art museums still need white cubes and black boxes because plenty of works are still made for those spaces. But as more art is made for other kinds of space—cyberspace, social space, deserts, treetops, shopping malls, you name it—it’s inevitable that museums bound up in contemporary culture will revise the notion that their identities are tied to their buildings alone as their missions and programs are pulled out into the world.

Which brings us back to Flood’s statement about entertainment: Attention must be paid. While it is commonplace to make wholesale distinctions between commercial forms of entertainment and cultural pleasures, Flood is saying something very different: Contemporary consciousness has been entirely saturated by the entertainment industry, including the consciousness of the audiences walking through every museum’s doors. Commercial entertainment is still viewed by many institutions as a lower species of mental activity, rather than as an evolutionary and transformative one, yet so much of the art being made either has no interest in these distinctions or takes them as the subject of the work itself. As Flood sees it, the audiences he needs to reach are equally uninterested, even brutally so.

The museum world will be watching the reconfigured Walker closely to see if it’s a true bellwether. Halbreich said: “The whole building is about giving visible and physical form to our multidisciplinary model, and I think that institutions will go increasingly toward a more multidisciplinary practice because, for one thing, that’s where artists are going and, for another thing, more disciplines attract more people; it’s a way to grow audiences.

“We wanted to make a place that allowed people to find meaning through multiple experiences,” she concluded. “Not something closed, not something about historical closure and finished answers. We’re not here to train people how to answer but how to question. That’s what the building is for. And if it does that, the building disappears.”

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.