Lost and Found

Surviving the crush, teasing an oracular virtual dolphin, and making sense of the Walker Art Center's reopening party

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.

Certainly the strangest corporate sop in the museum is "Oracle II," a computer-generated, artificially intelligent dolphin housed in the aforementioned Best Buy grotto. The dolphin will answer questions when queried from a nearby keyboard. For example, this representative exchange with a museum visitor:

Interrogator: "What is your favorite food?"

Dolphin: "There's a restaurant, a café, and a coffee cart. You choose."

Interrogator: "Are you a shill for the Walker?"

Dolphin: "Sometimes."

At least he's honest, which is more than you can say for a lot of computer-generated, artificially intelligent dolphins.

This kind of populist commercialism can easily become a distraction. Consider the cautionary example of the Guggenheim, a once-maverick institution that's become a mere marketing platform for BMW and Armani. Excess begetting success, the Guggenheim has also franchised its brand in Spain and Soho and Las Vegas, as though a fine-arts museum were nothing more than a highfalutin Arby's.

Still, there's no reason to suspect that the Walker will sell its lively and independent soul to the highest bidder. In fact, the inaugural exhibits in the museum's new galleries underscore just how sound a curatorial and institutional foundation the Walker is building upon. These exhibits, which showcase artists the museum has collected in depth, are organized in a series of quartets. The first is dedicated to the four pillars of the museum's postwar collection: Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Joan Mitchell, and Ellsworth Kelly. The second celebrates the spiritual descendants of those august pathfinders. There's a series of Duchampian readymades by Sherri Levine, for instance, as well as a room devoted to Kara Walker's brave confrontation with the mythology of the American South. Also on display is a collection of artifacts from Matthew Barney's Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, the five-film Cremaster cycle. This is especially intriguing, since, in one of the cycle's best scenes, Barney, dressed in a kilt and pink wig, scales the inside of the Guggenheim Spiderman-style. What, one has to wonder, would he cook up given free rein inside the new Walker, a building that already looks sort of like an REI climbing wall?

One can, of course, pick fights with individual pieces or artists (Is Levine advancing Duchamp's ideas or simply repeating his wry ironies? Discuss). But you can't argue with the overall excellence of the Walker's collection. The joy of seeing so much of this work at the same time is that you can begin to tease out the curatorial philosophy behind it. It's intriguing to note, for instance, that the exhibit identifies a series of "alternate modernisms" in often-neglected movements like Arte Povera, Fluxus, and Japanese Gutai art. In contrast to, say, the MoMA, the Walker doesn't lay any claim to definitiveness. As with the layout of the new galleries themselves, there are many points of entry and secret back alleys in art's canon. In this regard at least, the Walker's new form and its abiding spirit seem perfectly in synch.

I must admit that I didn't think much of the new addition initially. When first I remember seeing it, on a grungy winter afternoon, the building seemed soulless and chintzy, its whimsicality forced. In fact, I didn't really warm to the place until late Saturday night. The building's metal face was washed in mellow moonlight, its windows and balconies filled with people. Someone was giving away blinking red lapel pins, and the crowd below looked like the denizens of a bioluminescent sea. From inside the building, you could hear the burble of conversation and music. Finally, the Walker seemed finished.

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