At a Walker press preview earlier this week, Walker Art Center Director Kathy Halbriech said the new building is "about relationships." The Center's irregular design does suggest hip meeting and mingling spot: There's a cafe, a restaurant and bar by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, a Skyline Room for events that offers an entirely new view of Minneapolis that makes it look like a European city on the verge, and a number of lounges and roof-top terraces.
But while the Walker's architectural design might be innovative, there's little in the way of presentational innovation happening inside. Why is it that every other modern museum (music, science, sports, for example) is a center for information and education, but modern-art museums feel like an exercise in alienation? "Relationships" might be built inside of the Walker's white walls among those art lovers who will make the Center a frequent destination spot, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a group of people with a passing interest in modern art, cinema, or theatre who feel like the new facility has courted, or even converted, them with the new gallery spaces. If I'm wrong, I'll eat cow dung off an image of the Virgin Mary.
The Walker's gallery space has increased by 39 percent, or more than 10,000 square feet. But that's all it is: new gallery space, with, it must be said, some spectacular pieces. Not one to buck the trend, the Walker employs the same design and presentation of every other world-famous modern-art museum: The pieces are arranged by eras, separate rooms are dedicated to current exhibits, and an all-too-brief bio accompanies some of the artists' works.
Of course there's a logical reason art is displayed this way, though some museums, like the Weisman, for example, use influences as the guiding force in presentation design. This could mean that, say, Picasso paintings are displayed next to African sculptures. But it makes sense the Walker uses history and social movements as its inspiration: Both played a major role in modern art movements and individual creations. Yet you'd never know the real importance of this or how the three were so beautifully intertwined by just perusing the galleries, unless you were well versed in art history. And how many people really are?
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In a media-saturated era where the current zeitgeist calls for even more information, what would be so wrong if, say, computers or portable info sheets were set up in each exhibit with important facts, detailed historical timelines, or odd bits about the artist that helped to reveal why these pieces are still so relevant and innovative? Computers might not fit with the minimalist aesthetic, unless, of course, Apple sponsored it. (And almost every nook and cranny is sponsored by a corporation anyway. The most egregious is the interactive "Best Buy Arcade.") Regardless of how it's done, it's doubtful that such an original move would feel patronizing or like the Walker was "dumbing it down" and pandering to a new audience. Still, no modern art museum has attempted it, perhaps because of the wrong-headed notion that modern art (even as a historical artifact) should only be viewed on its own merit.
Modern art has always been about secret codes. If you didn't understand it, too bad. Art critic Clement Greenberg helped to perpetuate this concept of the avant-garde as "pure" and insular: When writing in the 40s and 50s, he maintained that art had to be preserved and separated from mass culture. He once claimed that avant-garde art was, by definition, difficult to understand, and therefore guarantees that the masses will shun it and the elite will support it. Puke.
But what would be the problem today if modern art, by way of the Walker, found a new audience? How would casual visitors feel about Marcel Duchamp (who was the inspiration for many of Sherrie Levine's works currently on display) if they were made more aware of his humor and disdain for artworks as a representation of ego? Ok, maybe that's a tad too art school. But he was a prankster, mocking the art world while serving to re-define it. Or what if next to Yves Klein's painting, "Suaire de Mondo Cane (Mondo Cane Shroud)," there were quotes from other artists who viewed Klein as a self-aggrandizing egoist? Or what if there was a way to inform visitors about the history of Abstract Expressionism as a form of propaganda during the Cold War? These sorts of refutations and historical insights are just as compelling as the pieces themselves.
If the Walker's goal it to be "about relationships," it seems like the museum could have done a better job building new ones. To be sure, as purely an exhibit space, the Walker is wonderful: It currently houses some of the most famous pieces of Post-World-War II art, from Abstract Expressionism to Arte Povera to Pop and beyond. In fact, it might even run a close second to Paris's famed Pompidou Centre. But with all of the effort spent on creating a cutting-edge landmark, it's too bad the Walker didn't spend more time and money on nurturing relationships beyond corporations and art enthusiasts.
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