Kathy Halbreich (in white) has the McGuire Theater all to herself. Photo by Cameron Wittig.
Kathy Halbreich limped into the final hours of her final day — her 6,115th — as the Walker’s director.
“I fell into a drain. I think it’s appropriate,” she told a Walker staffer, referring to the giant plastic boot encasing her right foot and ankle, as she hobbled into the museum’s Skyline Room. “I thought, you know, ‘Take the next step — break a leg.’”
That next step — a new associate director position created for her at New York’s Museum of Modern Art — was barely alluded to during Monday’s triple-layered farewell tribute. The evening started with a champagne-toasted goodbye from Walker staff, merged into a formal tribute to Halbreich in front of nearly 400 staff, donors, board members and assorted dignitaries and closed with a Walker-wide “block party” — all of it hailing Halbreich’s 16-plus years leading the Walker and the deep impact she made on museum programming, funding, recruiting and its thinking.
Long, thin tables at the staff toast were topped only with boxes of tissue, and many staffers reached for them during speeches as touching as they were brief.
“I will miss your shuffle to my the office with one more idea you need to share immediately,” said Philippe Vergne, the Walker’s associate director and chief curator.
Howard Oransky, the director of planning and a longtime Walker staffer, praised Halbreich for “having changed the curatorial landscape of contemporary art.” He recalled that after seeing evidence that the Walker exhibited art primarily from American and Western European artists, Halbreich immediately conceived and launched the museum’s global initiative. This broadened programming across disciplines, heightening artistic discoveries in Africa, China, South Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere and stamping the museum with perhaps Halbreich’s most profound legacy in terms of programming.
“You are not only the finest example of what a museum director can be, but you have given us a home, a home built with ideas,” Oransky said.
Philip Bither, chief performing arts curator, thanked Halbreich for her “constant, tireless, exhausting support and trust and faith” and the “grace and humanity in how you ran the place.”
Sarah Schultz, director of education and community programming, put it plainly: “Good girls don’t make a difference. So on behalf of all the remaining bad girls, we salute you.”
Jazz pianist Jason Moran proved a fitting feature of the tribute inside the Walker’s McGuire Theater. He first performed at the museum in 2001 and then held residencies in 2004 and 2005, when he turned to the Walker’s visual arts collection for direct inspiration for new work. On Monday, he tweaked one of his own tunes into the retitled “She Puts on Her Coat and Leaves,” sampling and layering sound clips from an early Halbreich interview — Her pasted words: “My Husband. My Son. My Friendship. My Obsession” — atop a gorgeous, airy ballad.
Board members rattled off Halbreich’s accomplishments: Among them, starting Free First Saturday and the Walker’s teen arts council, a $100 million capital campaign leading to the museum’s new building and balanced budgets during every year of her leadership.
Halbreich said she leaves the museum with a succinct mission: Keeping the Walker “a safe place for unsafe ideas.”
“These were, for me, the happiest years of my life,” she said from the theater’s podium. “It has been my obsession, and I thank you all for supporting it. This is a very special place, and what we have isn’t reproducible.”