Olga Viso, the Walker Art Center’s executive director since January 2008, will step down at the end of the year, shortly before what would have been her tenth anniversary as head of the internationally known contemporary art center. The news was announced in a press release this morning.
Viso came to Minneapolis after 12 years at the Smithsonian, including three as director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. She succeeded Kathy Halbreich, who led the Walker for 16½ years.
During Viso’s time at the Walker, a $75 million capital campaign was completed, as was an eight-year transformation of the Walker’s entrance and campus, including the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The Walker and the Sculpture Garden are now a unified art destination instead of two adjacent entities. Viso’s ambitious vision for an integrated master plan also brought us improved wayfinding within the museum, a renovated façade on the Walker’s 1971 red brick Barnes building, a restaurant on the main floor, a new lobby, a grand entrance from the underground parking ramp, more gardens surrounding the art center and 20 new artworks outdoors. Katharina Fitsch’s “Hahn/Cock” became a Minneapolis icon overnight, rivaling Claes Oldenberg and Koosje van Bruggen’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry” in popularity.
Viso brought many important exhibitions to the Walker, including “Merce Cunningham: Common Time,” which filled the Barnes Building for six months earlier this year. In 2011, she raised the funds to secure thousands of props, sets, drops and costumes from the Merce Cunningham Dance Archive for the Walker’s permanent collection, positioning the Walker as a research center for Cunningham’s work. Other important exhibitions that took place during her tenure included “Yves Klein” in 2010, “International Pop” in 2015 and “Hippie Modernism” in 2015-16. What may well be remembered as her signature exhibition and spectacular farewell opened last Saturday: “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950.” An expert in Latin American art, Viso is of Cuban descent.
Other accomplishments of the Viso years include a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation; a 75th anniversary initiative that added nearly 250 new art works from more than 120 donors to the Walker’s collections; and greater representation at the Walker of experimental, emerging, local and underrepresented artists including more women and people of color. Viso addressed gaps in the Walker’s historical holdings and brought greater diversity to the museum.
She also brought controversy. Several curators and department heads left for other positions, and one curator resigned for “personal reasons.” Two dozen staff members departed. In May of this year, the highly anticipated reopening of the Sculpture Garden was delayed a week when members of the Dakota community and the general public protested a new addition. “Scaffold,” a massive two-story structure by artist Sam Durant, represented several gallows used in historic government executions, including the mass execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862. When word got out that what looked like a big piece of playground equipment was something far darker – and had been built on Dakota land – a media firestorm erupted. The sculpture was dismantled and will eventually be buried, and Viso took full responsibility, but the bad taste remains.
With the Walker’s extensive renovations complete, the Sculpture Garden reopened and “Adiós Utopia” in the galleries, “the Board and Viso agreed that now is an ideal time for a transition,” said the release.
The board has established an Office of the Executive Director and will form a search committee. “We are grateful for Olga’s leadership and celebrate her significant contributions to the Walker Art Center during the past 10 years,” board President Monica Nassif said in a statement. Viso said, “It has been a privilege to lead this venerable contemporary arts institution the last 10 years … I am immensely proud of what we – the Walker’s talented and ambitious staff and the generous community of donors who stepped up boldly – have accomplished together.”