The voice of the institution at its core, presenting news and views from across the Walker.
In Pathé Newsreel footage from 1927, we see T.B. Walker opening the Walker Galleries. He opens the giant forbidding doors, pushing past lion-headed doorknockers, and we get a brief glimpse of his personal collection of art and artifacts as the camera goes through the galleries. Later, in 1979, artist Richard Haas took the image of the exterior of the 1927 building and another photograph of T.B. Walker standing on the sweeping staircase, known as the grand staircase, to create his trompe l’oeil work Walker Art Galleries Circa ‘27, now on view in the exhibition Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections. The ghostly image of T.B. Walker reminds us that before the brick-and-aluminum facility we know today there was another home for the Walker Art Center.
The Walker Galleries—sited in a building by architects Long and Thorshov of Minneapolis—existed from 1927 to 1969. The Moorish-style structure stood where the brick building by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes stands now. The grand staircase was the central focal point of the building, and over the years it was a backdrop for showcasing artwork, people, and events. It is the most enduring image of the old structure we have today. But what was beyond that staircase?
Upon entering the building’s first floor, visitors were greeted by the grand staircase. To the left was the information desk and book corner and to the right, the coatroom. From the lobby one entered the galleries from either right or left. The galleries were a series of connected rectangle-shaped rooms.
The galleries continued on the second floor, lit by skylights that lined the ceiling.
A surprising feature of the building was its horseshoe shape that surrounded an open courtyard. The courtyard was used for concerts such as the very popular Doc Evans Jazz Band in the 1950s. At times the court was also used for sculpture classes or exhibitions. In the 1960s it was known as the Sculpture Court.
The Walker Art School was on the basement level. Founded in 1940 under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the art school was operational until 1950, hosting art classes for children and adults in a variety of subjects including drawing, painting, sculpture, design, and fashion. Dozens of local artists taught at the school, led by the charismatic director, Mac Le Sueur. Other instructors included Evelyn Raymond, Arthur Kerrick, and Stanford Fenelle, all successful artists of the time. Although not a degree program, credit from the Walker Art School could be transferred to the University of Minnesota. The art school was very popular and served hundreds of people regularly in the classrooms.
When the terra cotta features on the Long and Thorshov building began to crack—raising fears that decorative pieces might fall and injure visitors—the Moorish-style facade was replaced with a Moderne look in 1944. In addition to being safer for the public, the sleek new look designed by Magney, Tusslar and Setter, Architects, reflected the spirit of the progressive contemporary programming offered at the Walker Art Center in the mid 1940s.
By the 1960s the old Walker Galleries building was in desperate need of repair. One side of the building had reportedly sunk, causing a crack through the center of the building. After examining the condition of the structure, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes was hired to design a new building. He created seven schemes before settling on the current brick facade that sits on Vineland and Hennepin. The old Long and Thorshov building was torn down in 1969, but before the wrecking ball began swinging, the Walker held a grand goodbye party along with a solo exhibition by Barry Le Va. The Le Va installation was not open to the public as the Walker Art Center had already moved the collections off-site. The building itself had been condemned in preparation for demolition so virtually no one saw Le Va’s show that has since become legend. It was a fitting end to a grand building.
In 1966 Christo came to Minneapolis to participate in the exhibition Eight Sculptors: The Ambiguous Image at the Walker Art Center. Taking advantage of Christo’s visit, area colleges arranged for Christo to teach and participate in student art activities while he was here. For a project at Minneapolis College of Art (MCAD) Christo worked with students to create 14,130 Cubic Feet Empaquetage (1966)—also known as Balloon Ascension. The students filled a weather balloon with 2,804 party balloons. The package was lifted 20 feet into the air by helicopter where it hovered for 30 minutes before descending to the ground. The original plan was that the helicopter would lift the balloon from MCAD to the Walker, but because of the complexity of lifting the balloon no one knew what would actually happen until the helicopter attempted the lift. Although it never completed the intended route it was still an impressive sight.
Covering the project, a partnership between MCAD and the Walker’s Contemporary Arts Group, the Minneapolis Tribune ran a story headlined “A Monument to Nothingness.” “The balloon is merely a container holding nothing just like the package will eventually hold many containers holding nothing and if one of the containers breaks the nothing still remains,” wrote Mike Steele. “It boggles the mind.”
For more moments from the Walker’s 75 years as a public art center, visit our Walker@75 page.
The Walker was founded on a question. “Shall we take it?” In 1939 the citizens of Minneapolis were offered an opportunity to start a federally funded art center. The answer? Yes. A resounding yes.
But how exactly did this offer come about? And what did it mean?
In 1935 a young architect and industrial designer left his architecture firm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to become the state director of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project for North Carolina. That young man, Daniel S. Defenbacher, launched the Community Art Center program. His vision was to open the art world to every American citizen, and Defenbacher saw the community art center as a gathering place for learning, culture and amusement, a destination, a town square with a mission to support all the arts. As he expressed it:
Art springs from human need and its values must be based upon human values. The museum therefore must measure its vitality in terms of service to the human need in its community. It must integrate art with the experience of living.
His experiment in North Carolina was a tremendous success and the Community Art Center program quickly became a national movement that spread across the country with Defenbacher at the helm. Between 1935 and 1939, Defenbacher established more than 70 art centers. The Walker Art Center would be his last and the largest.
Defenbacher spent most of his time traveling around the country personally overseeing the creation and operation of the art centers. According to his employment records he spent two to three days a month in Washington, DC, with Thomas Parker, the assistant director of the Federal Art Project, while the remainder of his time was spent traveling across the country looking at communities. In order for a community to be considered for an art center, a sponsor, such as an arts council or committee, would contact their WPA State Director. In turn, the WPA State Director would recommend communities to Defenbacher for consideration. After a site visit, Defenbacher would require that the local committee launch a fundraising campaign. He would estimate the total amount necessary to start an art center and then require the committee to raise 25 percent. He did this so that the community would embrace the concept and feel ownership in the center. After the funds were raised, the WPA would contribute the remaining 75 percent. The WPA contribution mostly paid for salarie, with a small amount allocated for general operation. It was up to the community to pay for maintenance costs, renovations, equipment and transportation.
Across the country Defenbacher spoke passionately about the potential of the art center system highlighting successful centers in his talks. One of his shining examples was Iowa’s Sioux City Art Center. “It had no gallery building, no art collection,” he wrote. “For quarters the owner of a business building donated the basement. For equipment the various trade unions donated labor, the merchants donated materials, and the citizens and civic organizations gave cash – in all, about $17,000. In six months over 56,000 people – well over one-half the entire population – visited and used the center.” With buy-in from the community, Defenbacher’s goal was that each art center would become self-supporting. WPA funding was year to year and, given the economic recovery in place, Defenbacher knew that that federal funding would only last a few years more.
In 1938, after three years on the road establishing art centers, Defenbacher was exhausted and looking for another opportunity, perhaps as a museum director. But he was also looking for one final site for the art center program. He wanted it to be outstanding, larger than any of the other art centers, something that would become the model for the modern museum. As fate would have it, at about this time Clement Haupers, WPA State Director of Minnesota, contacted him about an opportunity in Minneapolis.
Haupers wrote that the Minnesota Art Council (MAC) had identified a potential site in the T.B. Walker Gallery. MAC, founded by Ruth Lawrence, curator of the University Gallery (Weisman Art Museum), had formed a group of like-minded art lovers in 1938. The primary focus of MAC was on contemporary, living artists. At the time there was no gallery in the Twin Cities providing a place for Minnesota artists to exhibit their work. Lawrence contacted Bertha Walker, who in turn convinced her husband, Archie Walker, and the T.B. Walker Foundation to donate space in the Walker gallery to MAC for contemporary exhibitions. The result was the 1938 exhibition Living Minnesota Artists held in the Walker Art Gallery. Building on MAC’s success, the Council had the idea of approaching the WPA for funding to establish an art center. At this point, Lawrence, who remained on the MAC board, took a back seat on the council, as she had many other activities with the university, and felt she could not devote any more time to the project. However, she was reassured that MAC would thrive under the leadership of Rolf Ueland. He was a successful attorney, violinist, craftsman, and art enthusiast.1 Once again in 1938 MAC contacted Archie and Bertha Walker for their support, and this time they convinced the T.B. Walker Foundation to turn over the entire Walker gallery to MAC. With an art council and a facility in place, Defenbacher came to visit on November 15, 1938, and what he found inspired him.
In a letter from that same day written by Louise Walker, daughter of Archie and Bertha, to her brother, Hudson, she recounts the very first visit of Debenbacher and Haupers to the Walker Art Gallery.
“Dear Duke,” she wrote, “I’m all steamed up so listen carefully. This afternoon, …, two men came barging in on the privacy of my basement room, but instead of the usual gawkers who wander in by mistake and curiosity, they turned out to be the men with whom Pa had a long talk yesterday. One was Clement Haupers. …. The other was Dan Deffenbach (sp), regional director or some such big shot in the Federal art project, and who runs and flies about the country organizing art centers. As soon as I realized that I didn’t have to watch and see that they wouldn’t abscond with a snuff bottle we began talking and walking about the building while D. marked down what there was in the way of collection and space. He was so enthusiastic at the material we have there that most of the time he wouldn’t even listen to what we were saying so hard was he planning to himself how he would arrange it all.”2
After the site visit, MAC successfully raised $5,500 from the community in order to receive the $35,000 from the WPA. The T.B. Walker Foundation donated the museum building and collection and paid the utilities and maintenance while the WPA paid the salaries. MAC oversaw all the operations and began looking for a director. Its members were impressed with Defenbacher’s efforts and offered him the position. In November 1939 Defenbacher officially resigned his post with the WPA and became the first Walker Art Center director. In a few short months, he had transformed the Walker Art Gallery from a nineteenth century salon-style museum to a dynamic twentieth century art center.
When the Walker Art Center opened on January 4, 1940 the 3,500 visitors saw colorful displays, innovative exhibition cases, and numerous graphics and explanatory panels. The guest of honor was Thomas Hart Benton, the outspoken Regionalist and WPA champion. The press coverage was impressive, including a live radio broadcast of the event on WCCO. There were artists demonstrating their work and WPA dignitaries on hand. After the opening, MAC and the Walker staff began to work on the programming including special exhibitions, workshops, an art school for adults and children, dance recitals and film screenings. The next challenge would be to sustain the programming beyond federal funding.
WPA funding would end entirely in December 1942. The United States was at war and the era of the New Deal was over. Many of the center’s staff either joined the armed forces or were drafted. Even though he was short-handed, Defenbacher remained as director. Under his leadership the exhibition and education programs continued to expand including Everyday Art Gallery, the first dedicated design space in a museum, and the influential Everyday Art Quarterly (later renamed Design Quarterly). Defenbacher stayed on at the Walker until 1950. His enthusiasm for start-up operations led him to the Fort Worth Art Center. Later he became president of the California College of Arts and Crafts. He also took up architecture again and was associated with architect Victor Gruen. Eventually he retired to Florida, where he passed away in 1986. Defenbacher was an energetic, talented organizer with a passion for art, and under his leadership the groundwork was laid for what the Walker Art Center would become. The question he posed 75 years ago, “Shall we take it?” continues to remind us that—like art itself—the Walker is a conversation that we continue to have, as artists, as audiences, and as a community.
1 Ueland would be president of MAC from 1938–1946 and later after MAC was dissolved in 1946 he became the first president of the Walker Art Center board of directors
2 Defenbacher’s first visit must have impressed Louise Walker very much. They worked together over the next several months preparing for the Walker Art Center opening and became more than just colleagues. Later Dan and Louise were married and were a dynamic couple in the art world before they divorced in 1950.
To many, Joan Mondale was known for her political and artistic pursuits: the wife of Vice President (and later Ambassador) Walter Mondale, she was dubbed “Joan of Art” for her tireless advocacy for the arts. But here at the Walker, Mondale — who passed away February 2, 2014 at age 83 — was a colleague, […]
To many, Joan Mondale was known for her political and artistic pursuits: the wife of Vice President (and later Ambassador) Walter Mondale, she was dubbed “Joan of Art” for her tireless advocacy for the arts. But here at the Walker, Mondale — who passed away February 2, 2014 at age 83 — was a colleague, collaborator, and friend. She served on the Walker board on and off from the late 1980s until 2007 and was an avid fan of the Walker’s library. Archivist Jill Vuchetich remembers Mondale’s ties to the Walker through three items from her files.
Joan Mondale and Walker Librarian Rosemary Furtak had a long friendly relationship over the years. They both shared a love of art books. Joan would frequently donate books from her personal library to the Walker, many focused on Japanese arts and ceramics, a reflection of her own interests and her years spent in Japan. Rosemary and Joan would communicate about the books and life, and every year Rosemary would receive the Mondale Family Christmas card with a personal note from Joan. Over the years our library received more than 400 art books from Joan.
Joan was also an active board member at the Walker Art Center serving on the acquisitions, government relations, and the annual fund committees. Her years of service spanned three directors, each one touched by Joan’s tireless campaigning for the arts. Executive Director Olga Viso noted, “Joan was such a vibrant, inspiring force whose leadership and advocacy in the arts is unparalleled.” Former Director Kathy Halbreich commented, “She was a loyal supporter of Walker; she came to events with Fritz, signed hundreds of solicitation letters and understood how crucial it was for the institution to take risks in order to stay contemporary.” And Martin Friedman, Walker’s former director for thirty years told the Star Tribune that “in her own quiet way, she did more for the arts than anybody and any administration.” Joan will be missed but her legacy in the arts carries on.
Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy is a new touring exhibition that sheds light on what one scholar called “one of the most infamous examples of red-baitingand censorship in the pre-McCarthy era United States”—and on the Walker’s first curator, J. Leroy Davidson, who was at the center of it all.
Art Interrupted: Advancing American Art and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy is a new touring exhibition that sheds light on what one scholar called “one of the most infamous examples of red-baiting and censorship in the pre-McCarthy era United States”—and one of the Walker’s first curators, J. LeRoy Davidson, was at the center of it all. (more…)
Louise Walker McCannel, granddaughter of Walker founder Thomas Barlow Walker, played a critical role in the history of the Walker: both the private Walker Art Galleries and the public Walker Art Center. After graduating from Smith College in 1937, where she earned a degree in Fine Arts, Louise and her brother, Hudson, became the caretakers […]
Louise Walker McCannel, granddaughter of Walker founder Thomas Barlow Walker, played a critical role in the history of the Walker: both the private Walker Art Galleries and the public Walker Art Center. After graduating from Smith College in 1937, where she earned a degree in Fine Arts, Louise and her brother, Hudson, became the caretakers of the vast and varied art collection amassed by T.B. Walker. Louise was appointed director of the Walker Art Galleries and while Hudson left for New York in 1938, she stayed to help facilitate the Walker Art Galleries 1939 transition to the Walker Art Center. She worked at the new institution in many capacities: as director of the Children’s Gallery, editor of the Magazine of Art, and assistant curator.
As curator, she worked on the Walker’s extension program: educational outreach in the form of 36 small exhibitions that circulated throughout the state of Minnesota. These thematic shows—on jewelry, Chinese painting, and Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, and based on works in the T.B. Walker Collection—used portable panels for easy transport, a format that may seem old fashioned and quaint today, but was a very progressive form of outreach in 1940.
McCannel was instrumental in helping the Walker through its early years as an art center, and continued to serve on its board for more than 60 years. She was an active member from 1950 to 1997, and in 1998, after she became an honorary board member, continued to be a staunch supporter.
McCannel’s work and her philanthropy extended far beyond the Walker, as well. In a story about her life in the Star Tribune, Walker director emeritus Martin Friedman, who worked with her over several decades, described her as “a fierce, no holds-barred liberal when it came to social causes. She was always on the side of the little guy. She had a great sense of community and was an enemy of anything that smacked of racism. She was really dedicated to making a better world.”