Blogs Centerpoints

Guiding Culture: Olga Viso on the National Council on the Arts

Established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms, the National Endowment for the Arts is charged with supporting cultural excellence in arts “both new and established.” This effort secured the belief that along with increased assistance to education, elderly care, and ending poverty, support for the arts was paramount to the […]

Olga Viso. Photo by Cameron Wittig, courtesy the Walker Art Center

Olga Viso. Photo: Cameron Wittig

Established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms, the National Endowment for the Arts is charged with supporting cultural excellence in arts “both new and established.” This effort secured the belief that along with increased assistance to education, elderly care, and ending poverty, support for the arts was paramount to the quality of life for American citizens.

Since then, the NEA has given more than $4 billion in grants across all artistic disciplines, aid which continues to keep the US at the forefront of world culture. However, the art created with these grants has not been without controversy. Famously targeted during the culture wars by conservative groups during the late ’80s and early ’90s, the NEA’s very existence remains a public discussion. Although most citizens still believe the arts benefit our shared quality of life and aid in job creation, the budget specifically allotted to supporting art continues to be a contentious subject (a disproportionately large contention considering that the NEA budget is half of what the federal government knowingly spent on outdated computer systems in 2013). Perhaps obscured by these controversies is the organization’s current goals, missions, and operations, and how the NEA continues to shape the cultural efforts of our country.

These unique challenges were brought into focus during a recent discussion with Walker Executive Director Olga Viso, who was nominated by President Obama to serve on the advisory board of the National Council on the Arts, the NEA’s advisory body. During her just-begun six-year term, Viso will serve alongside 15 other members charged with making recommendations to the NEA chair on grant awards and agency policies and procedures, as well as recommending awardees of the prestigious National Medal of Arts to the president. Here Viso discusses her appointment to body whose distinctive (and difficult) mission is “bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education.”

Nathaniel Smith: Can you speak about the highlights of your first member’s meeting? And what are your expectations for your six-year term?

Olga Viso: A highlight of my first meeting in March was participating in the closed-door process of nominating potential awardees to the president for the National Medal of the Arts. It was an invigorating and inspiring discussion about what qualifies as excellence in American culture across the artistic disciplines. In terms of the future, I’m excited to work with a new NEA chairperson and be involved in shaping policy with a new leader.

Smith: What does your appointment mean to the Walker, in particular, and to the Midwest as a whole?

Viso: I think it has been very meaningful and important to those of us involved in culture, both inside and outside Minnesota, to have the leader of a progressive, forward-thinking contemporary arts institution have a voice on the National Council.

Midwesterners have had a long history of serving on the National Council since its founding in the 1960s. A number of Walker staff and trustees, including Walker Emeritus Director Martin Friedman, philanthropist Kenneth Dayton, and Vocal Essence artistic founder/director Philip Brunelle are all past members. Minnesota US Rep. Betty McCollum and Wisconsin’s Sen. Tammy Baldwin are currently ex-officio congressional members. I was appointed concurrently with Ranee Ramaswamy, founder of Ragamala Dance, whose company will be performing at the Walker the weekend of May 15 with a new commission.

Drawing Club at the Walker, part of Open Field 2011

Drawing Club at the Walker, part of Open Field 2011

Smith: Perhaps this is more coincidence than an intended consequence, but do you see your appointment (along with Ramaswamy and Houston-based artist Rick Lowe) as indicating a value placed on what is happening in the center of the country and perhaps a shift from the coast-dominated view of art?

Viso: The Midwest has always had a valued place on the Council. Indeed, it has typically been comprised of individuals representing all regions of the country. This is an important value for the NEA and also guides how its grant review panel members are selected. Many of us, like Ranee, also have a history of serving on NEA grant review panels through the years, so there is a tradition of participation and involvement. Many of our institutions have also been NEA grant recipients. Last year alone, 56 Minnesota organizations received $4,183,190 in funds administered by the NEA to support projects such as exhibitions, theater, dance and music productions, the creation of design arts curricula for youth, creative placemaking workshops for artists in rural Minnesota’s Lake Region communities, digitization of the American Craft Council’s library collections, and publication of the literary journal Rain Taxi Review of Books, as well as partnership agreements with the Minnesota State Arts Board and Arts Midwest.

The three recent appointments—Ranee, Rick, and myself—do underscore a priority in the Obama administration and at the NEA to bring increased racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity to the Council’s membership. The nomination of the new NEA Chairperson Jane Chu supports this new direction as well.

Smith: The work of your fellow appointee Rick Lowe is steeped in social practice. You have seen firsthand at the Walker with the experimental Open Field project how social practice can engage audiences in new ways. In your opinion, why is this a direction the NEA considered?

Viso: Given his long history of involvement with the NEA, Rick is a natural new addition. He brings not only the perspective of an artist and maker, but also that of the founder of a small, grassroots institution committed to creative placemaking and social activism in his community. He founded the organization Project Row Houses in Houston in the 1990s, inspiring many similar organizations and projects around the country. Social practice is a growing area of experimentation and activity in cultural organizations across the country, so it seems obvious to bring someone on board to the Council who can share this expertise and history in productive and critical ways.

Ragamala Dance Company. Photo by Bonnie Jean MacKay.

Ragamala Dance Company. Photo: Bonnie Jean MacKay

Smith: Along the same lines, what is important about having a major institution’s perspective included in the advisory board?

Viso: The composition of the Council is carefully considered to bring a variety of perspectives surrounding US culture together into one forum, including leaders of large and small institutions, visual and performing artists, authors, musicians, designers, arts administrators, grantmakers, and legislators. I bring the larger, multidisciplinary institutional perspective, while Ranee and Rick bring the perspectives of artists leading smaller organizations and from their respective disciplines of dance and visual arts. The Council is a fascinating and inspiring group of people, with singer Lee Greenwood from Nashville, former New Hampshire legislator Paul Hodes, and pioneering organic farmer and author David “Mas” Masumoto from California, among others.

Smith: In an interview with Rebecca Gross for the NEA’s Art Works blog, you mention that art is important because “it can provoke new thinking and perspective and can often invite us to experience the world with a new lens that taps into our own creative agency.” How do you see the NEA’s role in actualizing this idea? Do you see the recently announced grants aimed at researching “how art works and its impact on communities” supporting it by offering more concrete evidence in the face of increasing pressure to shut down the NEA?

Viso: One of the impactful legacies of former NEA chairperson Rocco Landesman was his ability to communicate to government the importance of the arts and the need for good public policy around the arts. It was Rocco who coined the term “art works.” Through his strong advocacy, he formed a number of lasting partnerships with other government agencies, including HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development], that continue to leverage millions of additional dollars towards culture each year in the addition to the NEA annual appropriation.

The new Art Place and “Our Town” grant initiatives that supported the Hennepin Avenue Cultural District project here in the Twin Cities several years ago were born out of Rocco’s active partnership with government. Rather than fight solely for increased funds to the NEA, Rocco formed partnerships that redirected new funds from other agencies toward culture. It is a great model and has, in my view, inspired a great deal of creative thinking about how to communicate the value of culture persuasively to government and to the American public.

Smith: This leads to a topic I’m sure is top-of-mind for many: the NEA has been a lightning rod for politicians for decades and has often been on the chopping block during budget-cut discussions. This remains an unfavorable sign, especially considering that the 2015 budget was already cut by $8 million from the previous fiscal year ($146 from $154 million). What are some of the difficulties in making the arts a credible, and tangible, part of an American’s life, not just to politicians, but to citizens as well?

Sam Durant’s installation We Are the People at Project Row Houses in 2003. Photo: Rick Lowe, courtesy Project Row Houses

Sam Durant’s installation We Are the People at Project Row Houses in 2003. Photo courtesy Project Row Houses

Viso: In times of financial need culture is always at risk. It is unfortunately seen as a luxury as opposed to a core value and necessity within a good and just society. This attitude is what needs to shift for the arts and artists to thrive in this country, and this is why Rocco’s mantra of “art works” is so compelling. He wasn’t afraid to make the case for art’s instrumental value in society, which is a case that can be made. It is art’s intrinsic value that is much, much harder to communicate and is difficult to do. Unlike many countries around the globe, the US does not have a formal Ministry of Culture. That work is dispersed between the NEA and the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities]. There is no cabinet-level appointee responsibility for culture in this country.

Smith: On a personal level, would you like to see the NEA return to funding individual artists, or is that delivery method an anachronism today?

Viso: The NEA does continue to award grants annually to individual artists who work in the fields of jazz, literature, and folk and traditional arts. These grants were not eliminated, and last year alone 68 grants were awarded to 68 artists in 28 states. What was eliminated, unfortunately, back in the 1990s, during the time of the culture wars, were individual grants to artists within the category of visual arts. The NEA does, however, continue to fund artists indirectly through grants to institutions that commission and present the work of living contemporary artists.

Smith: I’m thinking of alternatives to federal government funding and trying to imagine where support might come from in the upcoming decades. Perhaps corporations will begin funding local arts education and programming, realizing a tangible benefit for the employees’ families’ quality of life in their respective cities. Or maybe it is not a federal issue, but a state one. Locally, the voter-approved Legacy Amendment will give $1.2 billion in funding to the arts over the amendment’s 25 years, which will almost certainly enhance Minnesota’s quality of life. Or, perhaps the NEA is just as much of a hot button for the public as it is for politicians, and artists and organizations should avoid public funding and operate in a more free-market business style rather than looking for grant support. Has your time at the NEA given you an idea of the future of arts funding or any new options for finding funding?

Viso: While I would certainly advocate for the return of individual artist grants someday, what I would like to see more of today is more institutions proactively applying for projects that support living artists and the commission of new work. What I am seeing among institutional awardees in the visual arts arena, in particular, are applications for projects deemed “safe” by applicants, such as collections-based research, publication of scholarship, conservation, and exhibitions of old masters and historic material. These are all certainly very worthy and important projects for institutions that require considerable resources and allocation of funds, but what troubles me is the possibility that there is probably quite a bit of self-censorship happening in the field as a result of the challenges the NEA and the country faced back in the ’90s. I worry that institutions are not applying for riskier projects that get important resources out to artists.

This is why organizations like the Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts, on whose board I also serve, are so important. The Foundation, which was established in the late 1980s following Warhol’s death and in the midst of the culture wars, stepped in to focus on funding adventurous contemporary art organizations and projects that became at risk following the elimination of individual artist grants. The Warhol Foundation has de facto become the go to place for the funding of riskier kinds of projects that the NEA is assumed to not be interested (correctly or not) in supporting.

From the Archives: Pictures of Joan

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.

Letter from Joan Mondale to Rosemary Furtak, March 23, 2010. Walker Art Center Library

Letter from Joan Mondale to Rosemary Furtak, March 23, 2010. Walker Art Center Library

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 and Walter Mondale with US senator, Amy Klobuchar, at the Walker Art Center Gala Reopening, April 15, 2005. Walker Art Center Archives.

Joan and Walter Mondale with US senator, Amy Klobuchar, at the Walker Art Center Gala Reopening, April 15, 2005. Walker Art Center Archives.

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.

Joan and Walter Mondale on the campaign trail at the Walker Art Center with director, Martin Friedman, 1976.  Walker Art Center Archives.

Joan and Walter Mondale on the campaign trail at the Walker Art Center with director, Martin Friedman, 1976. Walker Art Center Archives.

 

Myron Kunin: A Tribute

While the Walker prepares to host a dialogue with director Steve McQueen as part of the Dialogues and Film Retrospectives series, it also marks the passing of one of the series’ greatest patrons. Myron Kunin, founder of Regis Corp., died last week, leaving behind a remarkable legacy of contribution to art in the Twin Cities. […]

A selection of the filmmakers who have taken part in the Dialogues and Film Retrospectives series at the Walker. Top, left to right: Claire Denis, Julian Schnabel, Frederick Wiseman, Ang Lee, Steve McQueen Middle, left to right: Miloš Forman, Jessica Lange, Noah Baumbach, Stan Brakhage, Apichatpong 'Joe' Weerasethakul Bottom, left to right: Agnieszka Holland, Abbas Kiarostami, Spike Lee, Kelly Reichardt, Agnès Varda

A selection of the filmmakers who have taken part in the Dialogues and Film Retrospectives series at the Walker.
Top, left to right: Claire Denis, Julian Schnabel, Frederick Wiseman, Ang Lee, Steve McQueen
Middle, left to right: Miloš Forman, Jessica Lange, Noah Baumbach, Stan Brakhage, Apichatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul
Bottom, left to right: Agnieszka Holland, Abbas Kiarostami, Spike Lee, Kelly Reichardt, Agnès Varda

While the Walker prepares to host a dialogue with director Steve McQueen as part of the Dialogues and Film Retrospectives series, it also marks the passing of one of the series’ greatest patrons. Myron Kunin, founder of Regis Corp., died last week, leaving behind a remarkable legacy of contribution to art in the Twin Cities. In addition to funding the Walker’s film dialogue and retrospective series for almost two decades, Kunin served as a board chairman and life trustee of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), sponsored the Northern Clay Center, and helped fund the University of Minnesota’s Regis Center for the Arts. An avid collector, he also amassed a notable collection of early 20th century American art, including paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, and Andrew Wyeth. Two hundred and thirty artworks from Kunin’s collection are included in his gifts to the MIA.

A conversation between Clint Eastwood and Richard Schickel launched the Walker’s Dialogues and Film Retrospective series in 1990, with support from the MacArthur Foundation. Kunin’s Regis Foundation took over funding in 1994, and Kunin has sponsored the series up to the present. Thanks to 19 years of generous support from Kunin and his wife, Anita, the Walker has presented conversations with over forty directors, artists, auteurs, and screen actors, including Claire Denis, Ang Lee, Béla Tarr, and Matthew Barney. The series has provided a space for some of the leading filmmakers of our time to discuss their creative processes, influences, and works as well as premiering and previewing dozens of contemporary films. Most recently, the Walker hosted the regional premier of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and the accompanying dialogue between McQueen and MoMA curator Stuart Comer will be held on November 9. “Appreciation of Myron’s longstanding support of this dialogue series, which allowed us to share the world’s greatest filmmakers with our community for nearly 20 years, is deeply felt by all of us,” said Sheryl Mousley, the Walker’s senior curator of film and video.

Kunin’s support for film at the Walker and for the broader Twin Cities arts community has made a profound impact on both institutions and individuals. In the words of the Walker’s executive director Olga Viso, “Mike was fiercely passionate about collecting as well as the power of film to communicate and we will miss that energy and faith here at the Walker.” We extend our condolences to Anita, the entire Kunin family, and their friends. Myron Kunin will be deeply missed.

Curating the Shop: Michele Tobin on Buying, Selling, and Etsy Pages

When Etsy invited its first round of tastemakers to be part of Pages, a new initiative launching today that helps Etsy visitors navigate its universe of artists and artisans, it invited retailers, magazines, and design pros — from Swiss Miss and Apartment Therapy to west elm and Tom Dixon — to share their recommendations. Only […]

Walker Shop Retail Director Michele Tobin

Walker Shop Retail Director Michele Tobin

When Etsy invited its first round of tastemakers to be part of Pages, a new initiative launching today that helps Etsy visitors navigate its universe of artists and artisans, it invited retailers, magazines, and design pros — from Swiss Miss and Apartment Therapy to west elm and Tom Dixon — to share their recommendations. Only one museum shop was invited: Ours. Shop director Michele Tobin is always on the hunt for hand-crafted items that best illustrate the Walker Shop’s brand — “modern living, well-crafted” — and for Etsy she’ll be hand-picking her favorite projects from the site’s more than 18 million listings. To commemorate Pages’ launch — including the Walker’s Etsy Page — we caught up with Tobin to hear more about what she does in the Shop and how.

At the Walker we use the term “curate” carefully. But isn’t that what you do in the Shop?

In short, yes. In the Walker Shop, items are for sale, of course, so the selection criteria is different than in a gallery. But the idea of collecting items from a common point of view is the same.

What does curating a museum shop entail?

There are overarching necessities within a retail setting – price point, packaging, product type (do I have enough scarves for the fall?).  Then there are seasonal considerations – outdoor living items and vases for fresh flowers should be available in the Spring, messenger bags and hats in the Fall, for instance. For the Walker, there are several more layers. The themes and points of view of the artists we work with, along with the interpretation of our curators and the educational programs we present, inform the buying process and presentation in the Shop.

How do you keep up on ideas, products, trends, and makers?

You want me to tell you all my secrets?! Every buyer has their own methodology developed over time. For me, there are companies that work with designers that I have my eye on all the time. I also attend buyers’ shows in New York and Chicago to look for new lines and emerging designers.  There’s also a constant, steady flow of email pitches flowing through my inbox, and sometimes a hidden gem shows up there (but truthfully, there isn’t enough time in the day to read them all!). My favorite way to discover something new is word of mouth – someone I know found something I should take a look at, and I just have to have it!

Are “influencers” important to you, and if so, who are some of yours?

While I have my eye on what other retailers are doing, honestly, I like to forge my own way. I used to be much more focused on other museum stores and tastemakers, but I started to feel a little bit like I was chasing my tail. Now I get my inspiration from what designers are doing and items that excite me, and I bring them to the Walker to hopefully give our customers a fresh point of view and some of the same inspiration and excitement.

How does working with Etsy support the mission of the Walker Shop?

The Walker’s main mission is supporting creative expression, and the same is true in the Walker Shop. Etsy has allowed me to see scores of handmade items that I wouldn’t see otherwise, and now Pages will provide a way for me to tip the Walker hat to an artist or designer for a job well done.

What do you love about Etsy?

I love the unpredictable treasure hunt of Etsy. It’s fun! Sometimes you see some crazy stuff, but usually I’m just amazed at how beautiful or well executed a design is.

The Walker's Etsy Page, curated by Michele Tobin

The Walker’s Etsy Page, curated by Michele Tobin

What non-shop/non-consumer ideas or people influence your work at the Walker?

I love art installations – how things are organized, the pedestals or platforms that are made, how things hang on the wall or from the ceiling. I’m also fascinated by public places and how people interact with them. Why do some benches always have people on them and some never do? I think those things inspire me to create an experience that is beautiful but also engaging.

What would you love to sell that won’t fit in our shop?

Well, baby animals would probably drive traffic during the holiday season…

I would love to have the space to highlight more furniture and lighting design. I bring in some select pieces to showcase, but to do it well we need a different size and location. We also currently don’t have any real walls to hang posters, organizational solutions, clocks, etc. But, I’m working on that – stay tuned!

How do you feel about online shopping?

I think it’s very convenient! I know I certainly shop online (only for things that aren’t in the Walker Shop, of course!). What’s interesting is that there are many people who prefer it. Everything is easy to see, with good photography and detailed product information.  That’s very interesting, and an important consideration when developing in-store and online strategies. For example, we have many Minneapolis online customers. That wasn’t something I expected, but I think it’s great.

What was the first thing you remember buying?

Sequined ribbon globe ornaments.  That was a long time ago… no judging!

Scenes from Station to Station in St. Paul

Station to Station, the “polyphonic culture train” spearheaded by artist Doug Aitken, made its way to St. Paul Thursday night. While the locomotive itself was nowhere to be seen — it was parked at Midway Station — a train of artists made its way to the stage and throughout the expansive station. Four yurts outside […]

A peek inside Kenneth Anger's yurt, where Anger's Lucifer Rising was screening.

A peek inside Kenneth Anger’s yurt, where Anger’s Lucifer Rising was screening. All photos by Paul Schmelzer

Station to Station, the “polyphonic culture train” spearheaded by artist Doug Aitken, made its way to St. Paul Thursday night. While the locomotive itself was nowhere to be seen — it was parked at Midway Station — a train of artists made its way to the stage and throughout the expansive station. Four yurts outside greeted around a thousand visitors, while inside, art, drink, and music were the fare. Here’s a look — including a clip of Patti Smith’s headlining performance — of what you missed.

Linking the Walker's Fritz Haeg exhibition with Station to Station, the BodyCartography Project performed with yields from Haeg's gardens in and around the Union Depot.

Linking the Walker’s Fritz Haeg exhibition with Station to Station, the BodyCartography Project performed with yields from Haeg’s gardens in and around the Union Depot.

Minneapolis-based artist Kate Casanova with American FWKErj, a Pacer with mushrooms growing from its upholstered seats

Minneapolis-based artist Kate Casanova with Vivarium Americana, a 1976 AMC Pacer she turned into a terrarium that grows oyster mushrooms from the upholstery.

Juliette Brungs, dancer/choreographer Patrick Scully, and BodyCartography Project founders Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad.

Juliette Brungs, dancer/choreogrpher Patrick Scully, and BodyCartography Project founders Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad.

Lawrence Weiner designed flags for each of Station to Station's stops. Here's what he came up with for St. Paul.

Lawrence Weiner designed flags for each of Station to Station’s stops. Here’s what he came up with for St. Paul.

Ariel Pink, who later performed on the Station to Station stage.

Ariel Pink, who later performed on the Station to Station stage.

Vendors included The Beez Kneez, a Minneapolis-based honey producer, which delivers its wares on bikes. Pictured, Kristy Lynn Allen.

Vendors included The Beez Kneez, a Minneapolis-based honey producer that delivers its wares via bicycle. Pictured: Kristy Lynn Allen.

Inside the yurt designed by Ernesto Neto.

Inside the yurt designed by Ernesto Neto.

Minneapolis' Mark Mallman, prior to joining Patti Smith and her son Jackson on stage. “I didn’t get their names,” Smith said of her local bandmates, which included Mallman and Gary Louris.

Minneapolis’ Mark Mallman, prior to joining Patti Smith and her son Jackson on stage. “I didn’t get their names,” Smith said of her local bandmates, which included Mallman and Gary Louris.

No Age's Randy Randall playing guitar with a drumstick.

No Age’s Randy Randall playing guitar with a drumstick.

Chicago's White Mystery, the brother/sister team of  Miss Alex White and Francis Scott Key White.

Chicago’s White Mystery, the brother/sister team of Miss Alex White and Francis Scott Key White.

Patti Smith, performing a powerful cover of Neil Young's "It's a Dream."

Patti Smith’s powerful lo-fi performance included a cover of Neil Young’s “It’s a Dream” (see video below).

Patt Smith at Union Depot, St. Paul from Eyeteeth on Vimeo.

Curator in 10 // Philip Bither

What can be learned about the unique lives of contemporary curators in just ten minutes? The new series Curator in 10 surveys art curators across disciplines in search of deeper understandings of emerging art scenes, audiences, and curatorial practices. This week, Walker intern Sean Donovan sits down with Senior Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither. Sean […]

Bither (center) with Dessa (left) and P.O.S. (right) at Rock the Garden, 2012. Photo: Greg Beckel

Bither (center) with Dessa (left) and P.O.S. (right) at Rock the Garden, 2012. Photo: Greg Beckel

What can be learned about the unique lives of contemporary curators in just ten minutes? The new series Curator in 10 surveys art curators across disciplines in search of deeper understandings of emerging art scenes, audiences, and curatorial practices. This week, Walker intern Sean Donovan sits down with Senior Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither.

Sean Donovan: So, we’re here to talk curating. Based on your experiences, how much of curating is intuition and how much an analytical exercise?

Philip Bither: It’s hard to talk about curating live performance as exclusively an analytical exercise. There’s an analytical part of it, but I think the majority is more based around intuition, passion, and an informed knowledge. But the key in it all is mission. In my instance, it’s mission of one’s institution. I, of course, have to interpret that, but it defines much of what I go to see and what I find inspiring. Luckily, the mission of our institution lines up with my personal passions and tastes, so it’s a combination of all of those things.

Donovan: Being a curator must be a deep challenge but also a unique privilege – to be a storyteller, a contextualizer, an advocate, and, some would say, a gatekeeper. Just as visual artists exhibit their work for audiences, you exhibit your seasons. Do you ever feel intimidated or honored by this privilege?

Bither: Both. I feel tremendously honored. It’s a really big responsibility, and I try to honor that by taking it really seriously around the choices I need to make as well as how we shape the experience for audiences. I can feel intimidated because, as I’ve told other people, you sometimes feel like you’ve invited a thousand really good friends to a party, and some nights they very well could have a terrible time, and I feel very responsible for what their experience is. Not that the work we choose should be accessible and safe, because that’s not our mission. But, it should be something meaningful for people.

Donovan: How do you pick up on whether something has reached its expiration date… like a type, a style, a theme, or even an artist? How do you know when something feels outdated or overdone?

Bither: With artists, if they’re not challenging themselves any longer – if they’re repeating themselves — that feels like it’s time for us to step away. With regard to art movements and styles, you just feel it. Seeing work all the time, traveling a lot, you just start to feel you’ve seen this work before. Also, if things have gravitated to a mainstream, it feels like it is no longer our place: if it’s been completely embraced commercially or it’s become something that’s embraced by television or other mainstream media and is written about in glossy magazines or popular websites. Our job is to be finding and supporting work that doesn’t yet have that attention.

Donovan: So, that’s the intuition part?

Bither: Yeah, although some of that is pretty obvious. But the issue of what is or isn’t dated can be dangerous too, because the flip side of that is what’s “trendy” or what’s “of the moment.” So, one tries to not just dismiss work because it feels like the style of work comes from an earlier time.

Sean Donovan (left) with Philip Bither (right)

Sean Donovan with Philip Bither

Donovan: Instead of only featuring the “new” and “upcoming,” the Walker makes a point of bringing performers back multiple times. Can you think of any other contemporary performance centers or venues which take the entirely opposite approach: to exclusively feature emerging groups? Could the Walker ever do this?

Bither: In the way I’ve programmed the past Performing Arts seasons, balance is a fairly important element, in my mind. We have selected a handful of artists who we have supported multiple times. But, if you look at the season in any given year, this one included — it’s about a third, a third, a third — equally split. This season actually has closer to half of artists who have never been to Minnesota, who we’ve never presented. Then the rest is a mix of artists who have been here numerous times and some who are coming for their second or third time. That balance feels right to me.

Donovan: Are there any presenters that disregard balance and solely program fresh and upcoming works?

Bither: None that I could point to immediately. There are a lot of festivals of new performance work that make it a priority to bring mostly new voices. I think that may be more fitting for a performance festival that has a frame that’s interested in the brand new and the emerging artists at all time as a core principle. There are festivals dedicated to emerging artists. But I think there is something very special and rare for communities to have the chance to witness the creative development of a handful of seminal creative figures of our time. It is, of course, tremendous and so appreciated by contemporary artists to feel they have a few anchors nationally — homes away from home.

Donovan: Does it ever feel like it’s too balanced, with artists — like Bill Frisell, for example — who people know and keep coming back?

Bither: Definitely. Inevitably, you get close to artists, and you continue to be intrigued by their journey, and I think when I leave someone else will have their hosts of artists. So, you could argue it’s good for curators to rotate out. But, I think we regularly make conscious choices about letting people go, which isn’t always easy — or waiting for the right moment to invite them back. Bill is an interesting case. He is a rare musical artist who continues to dramatically evolve and who is constantly challenging himself with new collaborations and interdisciplinary projects that often involve leading film- and video-makers, designers, and others. He develops programs conceptually, too, at a level which few other composer/instrumentalists that I am aware of do. That being said, it’s been three or four years since he’s done anything with us. There is one unlikely collaboration I have proposed to him that he’s very excited about. I hope it might happen some year soon, but I’m not at liberty to say more about it now!

Bither (left) with artist duo Eiko & Koma (right) Photo: Andy Underwood-Bultmann

Bither (left) with artist duo Eiko & Koma (right) Photo: Andy Underwood-Bultmann

Donovan: I’ve certainly noticed your interest in jazz, or jazz-inspired, music shows. Where does your enthusiasm for this originate? And, what can you say about the vitality of jazz today in our culture?

Bither: Well, jazz is a challenged form, but I think the notion that “jazz is dead” — something we’ve heard for thirty years — is overstated. It’s a music that is fluid and mobile. Most of the adventurous “jazz” artists I love the most refuse to use the term to describe their music. It’s a music that continues to morph and become more global and more connected to contemporary musical aesthetics. Much of what we do wouldn’t be defined in normal jazz presenting circles as even jazz. But, it has its roots in improvisation and some historical ties to jazz music. You know, it was a part of my early influences and inspirations. And, I think it’s sometimes unfairly written off as “of a certain era” and not doing much of interest anymore. So, when we involve ourselves in jazz, it’s done with an eye toward the pockets, which I would argue are significant, of continued relevance, or innovative. But again, we may only do two or three jazz-based projects (for lack of a better term) in a season of 12 to 15 music programs, which span contemporary classical, electronic, indie rock, new global sounds, and experimental music — terms which are equally contested and blurry.

Donovan: Let’s talk about selling a season. On the one hand, the performances often need to be “up and coming.” On the other, you have to make sure audiences come and see them. Has your sensitivity to what’s popular fluctuated during your time curating?

Bither: I don’t know. I’d like to say to myself, and to others, that we don’t take the question of a project’s saleability into account until after we make the commitment. But then, we feel our obligation is to find the audience for something that people have never heard of or maybe don’t even have familiarity with the art form. But, I think it’s inevitable that one is influenced when they have a whole marketing and development team, all of whom want things that people know. However, I fight against that tendency, and we very much pride ourselves that we are able to generate audiences for artists and live artworks that the public really doesn’t know at all. I am grateful that our crack marketing and PR staff is always up for the challenges we present them.

Donovan: Perhaps it’s about giving audiences something to latch onto?

Bither: Yes, and providing some relevance to broader circles — those outside of the art world, or at least people who aren’t working artists. But, I would say that we have an incredible luxury of not depending on box-office revenue much at all, really, or as intensely as other performing arts organizations and music venues. It’s 20 percent of our budget in an annual basis. Most presenting live performing art centers want to have 70 to 80 percent of their revenue coming from the box office. So, we really have the luxury to choose people for artistic reasons, artists that might not sell a lot of tickets. We know we can generate a certain amount of energy just because we’re “the Walker” with a longstanding reputation, and people have come to trust a lot of the choices we have made for the performing arts season. We try not to take that for granted and, at the same time, try not to let box office potential restrict us. If you look at any season, more than half of the events really seem unlikely things that people will go to. (Laughs). Of course, it makes it easier if we can create hooks to make it feel compelling or relevant. Because I studied journalism, I think a curator’s job is, in part, is to tell the story of unknown artists and to construct the driving narratives and hooks for the media and for audiences. So, part of it means I serve as a kind of advocate or a promotional person on behalf of artists. Still, the equation isn’t finished unless you have at least some audience there. And that’s the difference with other art forms. I feel it’s unfair to artists to commit in presenting them and then not really care whether people come or not. And, there are circles where performance curators work that way. I come from a different place.

Donovan: I imagine you have to use the word “innovative” a lot in your job.

Bither: Yeah, too much.

Donovan: Does it ever lose relevance? How do you work around that? Just try to use other ways of describing things?

Bither: Yes, we do, and I don’t really have a good answer for that. “Fresh.” “Unseen before.”

Donovan: Depends on the project?

Bither: Yeah. The question also becomes: innovative for whom? I think that’s a challenge as a curator as well. If you’re concerned about audiences or what people feel they are prepared to want to see, then you realize you’ve seen ten times as much or twenty times as much as a lot of the people you’re inviting to see. So, what feels derivative to you might feel incredibly new and fresh to others. I try not to worry too much about those things because I feel the job of an international center like the Walker is to find the most unusual and inventive new forms and new work that are within our spheres. I don’t know if that quite answers your question— it’s a good one.

Philip Bither (right) with

Philip Bither (right) with a group of young artists (left) at a Buddhist Temple in Magelang, Central Java

Donovan: I get the sense that your job combines many duties of visual arts curators — research and writing on art theory — with those of live performance producers — an awareness of what’s happening in the “real world” and an expertise to present them. What is it like to have a foot in each world–the study and the presenting?

Bither: I often feel like I am maintaining a split personality, almost two separate identities or jobs. That being said, I mostly consider my role as a curator in the classic sense of “to care for” an artwork. In the realm of live performance, working for an institution dedicated to new work, this is directly tied to caring for the artists themselves. What is essential in this regard is to understand as deeply as possible the context and history of an artist’s work, their influences, what artistic movements their work is part of or is attempting to reject. I am not that interested in theory in the abstract, absent its relationship to living, breathing artists and how they make their work. In live performance, a curator serves as an intermediary between an artist, the public, and the media, including sometimes those who are driving critical discourse in art world, whether they are journalists, historians, or scholars. It is essential in our contextual work and the ways we present artists that we try to get the historical framing of an artist’s work right. Personally, I prefer serving as a live intermediary directly with an artists, whether it is through facilitating dialogue with a creator in front of a public or in front of a video camera, verses writing about the work, although a do a fair amount too. It is unavoidable.

Donovan: How would you describe the curatorial lens you look through? Which art histories or theories do you care about?

Bither: I don’t ascribe to a particular single art historical theory or even telling the story of contemporary art through one particular history. I think one needs to read as much as possible, stay open to different interpretive lenses, and be willing to alter one’s perspective. I am wary of grounding one’s work around a single theory. The world of global creative work is far too diverse and expansive for that. The Walker has long been proud of rejecting one simple (usually Eurocentric) story of modernism or post-modernism. That is why in the galleries we have long shown global art movements as equally valid threads of art development. That being said, I do find myself drawn to performance writers like Claire Bishop and in the world of arts journalism, I think Andy Horwitz at Culturebot has played an important role in raising questions about the visual art world’s sometimes problematic, or at least limited, approach to live performance.

Donovan: Last question: So, I grew up here in Minneapolis, and I think I’m biased because I just imagine all the other big cities to have way cooler contemporary performances going on — like LA or New York or Berlin. From your perspective, should I be thinking that?

Bither: I don’t know. I think that this is a pretty unique city for the ecology of work that happens locally and that’s brought in nationally and internationally. Certainly, as mid-size American cities go, I feel we are a special place. Knowing your interests, I think you would be terribly disappointed if you spent time in the top 25 American cities outside of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, LA, and Seattle. Most other places feel like you’re lucky if you get three or four interesting things in a year. Of course, there is classical music and there’s modern dance, occasionally. But, there is not a culture of contemporary performance and dance work or ambitious experimental music in most American cities. Yes, there is a much more diverse and vibrant scene in Berlin and in New York. I think it’s arguable about San Francisco and Los Angeles. I think in LA there are certain types of art forms that are really vibrant and exciting. But, there are other forms, disciplines, that to my mind are less interesting, even, than Minneapolis.

While I don’t want to sound too much like a booster, I think we are in one of those four of five most interesting cities for contemporary performing arts in America, through the mix of local and imported work.

Culture and Nature: Station to Station’s Video Portrait of Minneapolis/St. Paul

Next month, a nine-car train departs from New York bound for Oakland. Dubbed a “nomadic happening,” the train will be part traveling fun show, part kinetic art project, and part broadcast beacon, beaming ideas about art, music, and culture around the world. The brainchild of artist Doug Aitken, Station to Station is making a stop […]

Next month, a nine-car train departs from New York bound for Oakland. Dubbed a “nomadic happening,” the train will be part traveling fun show, part kinetic art project, and part broadcast beacon, beaming ideas about art, music, and culture around the world. The brainchild of artist Doug Aitken, Station to Station is making a stop at St. Paul’s Union Depot September 12, for a night of art, music, and film benefiting the Walker. In a multimedia essay, Wired’s Clive Thompson writes of Aitken’s goal for the project:

To make art that’s simultaneously physical and virtual, local and global, broadcast using a mashup of the Internet and one of the oldest networks in the US, the steel rails. If Song1 was liquid architecture, this is practically a plasma. “We’re living in a new topography,” Aitken says. “Is it possible to be everywhere and nowhere?”

But while placelessness — being everywhere and nowhere — is part of the aim, so is rootedness. In anticipation of this epic rail ride, the team behind Station to Station is producing video portraits of the cities hosting the train’s stops. Released today is the Minneapolis/St. Paul edition, featuring footage of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Walker galleries, and Rock the Garden 2013, as well as an interview with Walker executive director Olga Viso, who explains the unique nature-meets-culture identity of the Twin Cities.

“People belief things are possible, and that’s a fertile place for art to really flourish,” says Viso. “There’s a great love of doing things collectively. There’s  a strong sense of communal pride, this wanting to come together and gather, and to make things happen. And obviously music and art are central to what makes people come together and appreciate both culture and nature.”

A Day for Detroit: Walker Favorites from the DIA Collection

Many of us at the Walker are disappointed by Monday’s news that Kevyn Orr, emergency manager for the city of Detroit, has contracted with the auction house Christie’s to assess the value of artworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection that might be sold to settle the city’s municipal debts. While such a sale […]

van gogh

Vincent Willem van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887

Many of us at the Walker are disappointed by Monday’s news that Kevyn Orr, emergency manager for the city of Detroit, has contracted with the auction house Christie’s to assess the value of artworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection that might be sold to settle the city’s municipal debts. While such a sale is not inevitable, Orr has said he wants all options “on the table” in dealing with Detroit’s bankruptcy. We’re in agreement with the American Association of Art Museum Directors — of which Walker executive director Olga Viso is a member — in opposing such a course of action. “A museum’s collection is held in public trust for current and future generations,” AAMD said in a recent statement. “This is a bedrock principle of the Association of Art Museum Directors and of the museum field as a whole. Art collections are vitally important cultural and educational resources that should never be treated as disposable assets to be liquidated, even in times of economic distress.”

Today we join with more than a dozen art websites in observing A Day for Detroit, spearheaded by Modern Art Notes’ Tyler Green as a way to showcase works in the DIA’s collection that could be threatened by such a sale. Below, favorite DIA artworks as selected by Walker staff, along with a few reflections on the art and the institution that’s given it a home.

“As a prescient City of Detroit purchase, van Gogh’s self-portrait would be among the most vulnerable masterpieces should any sale move forward,” says Andrew Blauvelt, the Walker’s design curator and Chief of Communications and Audience Engagement. “It is one of just a handful of van Gogh’s self-portraits that the public can see in the United States, which, if sold, would likely enter a private collection. One more transfer of wealth from a public trust to private hands.”

Vincent Willem van Gogh, The Diggers

Vincent Willem van Gogh, The Diggers, 1889

Associate registrar Pamela Caserta says a different van Gogh — The Diggers from 1889 — as her favorite piece in the DIA collection. She writes:

“The Detroit Institute of Arts is energized, lively, and essential. The arts could be Detroit’s saving grace, but not if the state sells away one of the city’s most impressive traits. To dismantle Detroit’s most prized collection would be a disservice, not only to the people who live an love Detroit, but to the future of its position as a cultural center, and to the international communities public access to important masterworks. Detroit is already attracting artists who are working to transform its terrain, perhaps around ideas like urban farming, clean energy, and creative expression.”

sargent

John Singer Sargent, Mosquito Nets, 1908

“It’s hard to select just one favorite in the DIA collection, but I’m going old school by Walker standards with John Singer Sargent’s Mosquito Nets. Sargent’s portrait—of what its provenance suggests may be his sisters Emily and Violet—feels a little like Downton Abbey crossed with Minnesota summer,” says Robin Dowden, director of New Media Initiatives.

Bouguereau

William Adolphe Bouguereau, The Nut Gatherers, 1882

Scott Lewis, supervisor of the Walker’s frame shop, has deep ties to Michigan: He grew up in Jackson, went to college near Pontiac, and lived in Detroit for six years, where he and his wife had their first daughter. A great fan of the DIA collection, he points to two “stunners”: Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi and The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. But his favorite painting is The Nut Gatherers by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. “I would make it a point to visit the work every time I went to the DIA, even if for a minute,” he says. “For a long while it hung beside the Farnsworth Entrance beside the Visitor Services desk, a testament to its popularity. Many think the work of Bouguereau is sentimental, but perhaps that’s why I like it. I liked the innocence of the subjects, the brush work, the color and shading – it’s a work of real craft. Later, my wife and I produced two daughters: one blonde and one dark haired.  I’ve felt that The Nut Gatherers was a window to my future.” He notes that his daughters gave him a Father’s Day gift years ago: a photo of the two of them reenacting the image.

Estes

Richard Estes, Blue Cadillac, 1967

Mia Lopez, a curatorial fellow for Visual Arts, often visits family in Detroit. “Whenever we visit, my mother and I love to stop by the DIA. She enjoys photorealism and had an early influence on my taste: Richard Estes is someone we both appreciate.”

Arthur Rothstein, Father and Sons Walking in the Face of a Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936

Arthur Rothstein, Father and Sons Walking in the Face of a Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936

“I enjoy the opposing sensations of getting lost and grounded in the Rothstein photograph,” says Walker photographer Gene Pittman. “The persistence of the subjects to continue on their path in this storm feels like a portrait of Detroit.”

Pietro Radillo, Venetian Contadino, late 19th century

Pietro Radillo, Venetian Contadino, late 19th century

Pittman offers a second pick, from the DIA’s extensive collection of objects and ephemera related to the performing arts. “I want to photograph this face and listen to his story,” he explains. “I want my son to see this puppet and tell me what he is saying.”

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket,

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, 1875

“When I finally saw Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold in person last year, I was literally left breathless by its beauty,” shares Sarah Schultz, the Walker’s director of Education and curator of public practice. “That memory will never leave me.”

John Sloan, McSorley's Bar

John Sloan, McSorley’s Bar, 1912

“A beautiful example of John Sloan’s work which captures the street life of New York,” says archivist Jill Vuchetich of her pick. “The work was purchased for DIA directly from the artist in 1924! That’s a wonderful legacy and would be a great loss to DIA.”

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, South Wall, 1932-1933

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, South Wall (detail), 1932-1933

“Diego Rivera’s stunning Detroit Industry Murals, painted on the north and south walls of the museum, are one of the unquestioned masterpieces at the DIA, that virtually no other US museum can boast,” says Olga Viso, Walker executive director. “Depicting laborers working at the city’s Ford Motor Company River Rouge Plant in the 1930s, Rivera saw and painted the significance of Detroit as a world city. His vision of Detroit in the early 20th century provides not only an important historical record of the city’s past achievements that is paramount to preserve, but also offers an important touchstone from which to consider and imagine its future.”

What are your favorite works from the DIA collection? Share your thoughts in comments, and please consider supporting this valuable cultural institution however you’re able.

Questions for Art Museums in the Information Age

“With the massive social, demographic, technological, and economic shifts that have been radically transforming global society in recent decades, art museums around the world have been managing in environments of significant change,” writes Walker executive director Olga Viso in the introduction to a new white paper. “Struggling with issues of audience relevance, leadership and financial […]

Aspen

“With the massive social, demographic, technological, and economic shifts that have been radically transforming global society in recent decades, art museums around the world have been managing in environments of significant change,” writes Walker executive director Olga Viso in the introduction to a new white paper. “Struggling with issues of audience relevance, leadership and financial sustainability, museum directors around the world are boldly questioning the future of the art museum.”

That paper — “The Art Museum Today, in Discussion” (pdf), authored by LACMA director Michael Govan — is the result of a March 2013 convening in Aspen, organized by Viso, that brought together 17 museum directors from around the globe, as well as six “outside provocateurs,” to wrestle with the issues museums face today and into the future. The seminar follows work done in 2012 by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) Futures Task Force, also chaired by Viso, which identified four key issues facing museums:

• changing nature of audiences (demographics and expectations);
• relevance and content of mission statements;
• sustainability of institutional financial models and finding alternative funding/revenue streams;
• sharing authority (tensions between curatorial voice and public voice).

Summarizing the convening’s findings, the paper “reflects a strong embrace of the diversity of museums, the challenges they face, and propositions for their respective futures,” as Viso writes.

Read the paper or read the executive summary of the March convening.

 

Tom Crosby: A Tribute

It’s fair to say the Walker–and, indeed, downtown Minneapolis–might not look the way it does today without the influence of Tom Crosby, who passed away Sunday at age 74 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. A board member for 45 years, Crosby was close advisor to three Walker directors, served as president of the board […]

Roger Hale (currently an Honorary Trustee), Martin Friedman (currently Director Emeritus), Justin V. Smith (a Walker family member and former president of the T.B. Walker Foundation), Walter Walker (a Walker family member and the late husband to current board member Elaine), and Tom Crosby, with paperwork making the Walker a truly public institution, 1976. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Roger Hale (currently an honorary trustee), Martin Friedman (director emeritus), Justin V. Smith (a Walker family member and former president of the T.B. Walker Foundation), Walter Walker (a Walker family member and the late husband to current board member Elaine), and Tom Crosby, with paperwork making the Walker a truly public institution, July 30, 1976. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

It’s fair to say the Walker–and, indeed, downtown Minneapolis–might not look the way it does today without the influence of Tom Crosby, who passed away Sunday at age 74 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. A board member for 45 years, Crosby was close advisor to three Walker directors, served as president of the board of trustees at key moments in the Walker’s history, and contributed, with his wife Ellie, generously to help the Walker realize some of its most important projects, from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 1988 to the Herzog & de Meuron expansion in 2005, the 2012 exhibition Lifelike to our current project restoring the building’s façade, to name but a few. Throughout nearly five decades, Crosby was at the center of many of the Walker’s biggest moments.

The great grandson of John Crosby, a founder of General Mills Corporation, Crosby specialized in real estate law, becoming a partner, and later managing partner, at Faegre & Benson (now Faegre Baker Daniels). He joined the Walker board of trustees in 1967 and quickly grew close to then-director Martin Friedman. He was president of the board in 1976 when the T.B. Walker Foundation agreed to transfer $27 million to the Walker Art Center, an important moment that brought more community members into Walker governance, making the institution a fully public museum.

The Crosby family’s generous giving to the Walker’s Annual Fund helped make recent exhibitions–including Sol LeWitt:  2D+3D and 1964–possible, and the couple’s gifts of artwork–including Ellsworth Kelly’s 2001 lithograph Dark Blue–have bolstered the Walker’s collection (this summer the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will see the installation of a new sculpture, the conceptual work, For Whom, by Kris Martin, which the Crosbys and other Walker board members purchased on the Walker’s behalf and in honor of Friedman). And in coming years, it will help reinvent the Walker’s four-acre green space, host to Rock the Garden and Open Field. Active since his first moments with the Walker, Crosby served as chair of a range of committees over the years–from Government Relations to the Park Board–as well as serving as president, vice president, and chair of the Walker board. He also ensured the solid legal counsel of his firm.

The neighborhoods abutting the Walker and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden have also been transformed with Crosby’s help. Active in downtown commercial real estate, Crosby was involved with the acquisition, financing, and disposition of major Twin Cities properties such as the IDS Center, Baker Center, and Minneapolis City Center. He also served on the board of directors of Oxford Development Group Limited, a real estate developer with major downtown projects in several Canadian cities and in the Twin Cities, Denver, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Crosby’s civic enthusiasm extended to other organizations and municipalities where he shared his passions and skills. The mayor of Medina just prior to his death, and a past city council member there, he served on the boards of Greater Twin Cities United Way, The Minnesota Orchestral Association,  The Blake School, and Abbott-Northwestern Hospital, among others.

But it’s Crosby’s personal counsel, on issues of varying degrees of magnitude, that will most be missed by those of us who knew him through the Walker.

“Tom was always the voice of calm and reason, even in the most difficult situations,” notes Olga Viso, executive director of the Walker. “I so appreciated how his mind worked–his probing questions, how he could parse and dissect the relevant issues, and the way he always kept the highest possible end goal and aspiration in mind. He was absolutely brilliant at finding solutions that worked for everyone, and he was especially savvy at finding ways to confidently realize challenging artistic projects in public space, even if they might at times test the bounds of state or city ordinances!”

“During my first weekend living in Minneapolis, Tom and his wife Ellie invited me to their home,” she recalls. “I will never forget the subzero temps that Sunday morning in January as they took me on a hay ride around their gorgeous property.  While I at first thought that he might be testing my fortitude in those first days as director, I knew when he and Ellie handed me a pair of wool mittens with warmers inside that he would be a great friend and partner.”

The Walker’s past directors concur. “Tom was always at your side when you needed him, personally and professionally,” says emeritus director Friedman. “He was devoted to the Walker and saw us through many a crisis. He is irreplaceable.”

“Tom was two things which are becoming increasingly rare: a great citizen and a thoughtful friend,” says Kathy Halbreich, Walker director from 1991 to 2007 (now associate director at the Museum of Modern Art). “He just had a natural gift for knowing the right set of questions regardless of whatever the dilemma. He never panicked and always answered with what I initially thought was common sense and came to understand was wisdom delivered without pride.”

She recalls an incident when a conservative group had singled out books for sale in the Walker Shop as pornography. “His response was to ask where else the books were sold which, after a couple ofhours of research, turned out to be quite a comprehensive list including the Harvard co-op,” she recalls. “Tom and Ellie even got me to go camping. Once. Good friend, great guide, indispensable civic leader. Both Walker and I are in his debt.”

We extend our sympathies to Ellie and the entire Crosby family, their friends, and all those touched by Tom Crosby’s remarkable life. He will be missed.

 

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