At one point, the line for Saturday night's opening-night party at the Walker Art Center stretched more than a block from the museum's Vineland Place entrance. Everyone was buzzing to get a first peek inside; the queue had the feeling of an especially anticipated film premiere. Which seemed just about right. The new Walker, a five-story metal tower that looms over the museum's 1971 building, is designed to draw a crowd. As buildings go, it's a blockbuster.
There are a lot of good things you can say about the Walker's reopening--not the least of which is that it has reopened. This past Walker-less winter was a reminder of just how much a world-class arts institution adds to the life of our little metropolis; without it, Minneapolis might as well be Houston. And it's worth mentioning that, with a price tag of a mere $70 million--excluding finishing the museum's office space and the sculpture garden--the Walker's new addition was a relative steal. Yoshio Taniguchi's expansion of the MoMA, by way of comparison, ran a cool $450 million. And the Milwaukee Art Museum recently spent more than $100 million on its addition.
The organizing idea behind the Walker's renovation was to open the museum up, physically and philosophically, to the city. Much has been made, for instance, of the new wing's orientation toward Hennepin Avenue. This is a noble impulse. The minimalist brick box that's housed the Walker since 1971 is a lot of things: crisp, blunt, and dignified. But you can't call it welcoming: One imagines curators raining hot oil and pointy sculptures on the heads of the barbarians below from its fortresslike battlements. Viewed from afar, the metal-plated addition, which was designed by superstar Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, is hardly more inviting. In fact, it looks a little like the Death Star.
But that chilly effect begins to break down as you approach the place. For one thing, the building's monolithic aluminum facade is softer and more rumpled than it appears from a distance; its texture is like a sheet of crumpled paper or the wind-ruffled surface of a winter sea. Then there's the giant trapezoidal window that brings to mind the disembodied grin of the Cheshire Cat. How can anyone hate this building? Like some cockeyed robotic Cristo Redentor, the new Walker is literally smiling down on Minneapolis. Either that, or the building is about to pluck Claes Oldenburg's iconic cherry off its spoon perch and pop the thing in its mouth.
There's a carnival funhouse aesthetic at work inside, as well. The museum's original galleries are a series of wide, graceful platforms that wind up like dais risers. The four new galleries, while flowing seamlessly from the old, have a somewhat more closed feel. These exhibition spaces are configured as a honeycomb around the museum's lounges. The galleries have a mazelike vibe, with narrow halls that don't go anywhere and odd little cubbyholes in the walls. Head curator Richard Flood compares the layout to a souk, and that seems about right. On Saturday night, even with the place packed to the rafters, people were still getting hopelessly lost in the museum's warren of rooms. The building is full of private quirks: windows that look into other rooms in the building; swirling, biomorphic filigrees around the gallery entrances; and a glass-enclosed main hall that slopes at the easy grade of Lowry Hill. Wandering around here feels like strolling inside an M.C. Escher drawing.
While the renovation has added quite a bit of exhibition space, the majority of the Walker's new wing is dedicated to non-gallery amenities. Chief among these, of course, is the museum's new 385-seat theater. Like the rest of the building, the theater seems slightly off-kilter at first blush: The steep rake of the auditorium and the lack of a proscenium, in particular, give the impression that you're looking down on the stage at a vertiginous angle. The prominence of the theater in the museum's new layout reflects the fact that, under curator Philip Bither, dance and music have become as central to the Walker's programming as visual arts. Bither's brand of global populism was amply reflected in last weekend's slate of mini-performances, which ranged from a recital by Philip Glass to a selection from the work of local avant-garde choreographer Joe Chvala to a hypnotic piece by Indonesian dancer Mugiyono Kasido. In every show I saw, the new theater performed admirably: Even Glass's "Metamorphosis," a piece I've always thought of as Muzak for art nerds, sounded turbulent and freshly vigorous.
In addition to the theater, the Walker's new building finds room for a swanky gift shop, an upper-story lounge with a primo view of downtown, and two restaurants by Wolfgang Puck (who's fast becoming the Ray Krok of fine dining). Oddly, everything in this new wing seems to be sponsored by some corporation or another. You walk from the General Mills Lounge to the Best Buy Arcade to the U.S. Bank Orientation Lounge. In its proliferation of corporate sponsorship, the Walker is less MoMA than MOA: By the time you hit the Target Gallery, you'll be looking around for the Orange Julius and the Foot Locker. Small wonder that the museum's public spaces are now filled with the anime-inspired sculptures of Takashi Murakami, an artist who fairly embodies the competing claims of commerce and pop culture on art making.