Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

This content is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

How the Walker went from being the first public art gallery west of the Mississippi to a modern art powerhouse

Lumber baron T.B. Walker’s obsession with art began during a trip to New York to furnish his Minneapolis home.

The Walker Art Gallery circa 1925.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In 1879, lumber baron T. B. Walker invited the public into his downtown Minneapolis home to view his art collection. Over the next century, that collection evolved into the Walker Art Center, a world-renowned site for challenging work by innovative artists, including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, and Kara Walker.

In 1874, Harriet and Thomas Barlow (T. B.) Walker traveled to New York to furnish their Minneapolis home. There, they purchased a painting that began the lumber baron’s art obsession. In the following years, he amassed an eclectic range of art, and in 1879, he invited the public to view his in-house collection.

Walker’s gallery, the first public art gallery west of the Mississippi, continued to grow. By 1915, his fourteen-room museum welcomed 100,000 visitors annually; by 1920, it displayed 400 paintings.

In 1916, Walker bought land in Lowry Hill that he offered to the city of Minneapolis as space for a public library and art museum. After five years of futile negotiation, Walker resolved to build his own museum. Construction began in 1925, and the Walker Art Gallery opened in 1927.

Article continues after advertisement

During the Great Depression, only three staff remained. After 1935, Walker’s grandchildren Hudson Walker and Louise Walker McCannel ran the gallery until the Minnesota Arts Council took charge in 1939. The council was funded by the Federal Art Project (FAP), a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program. FAP saw the gallery’s potential and hired thirty staff, making it the WPA’s largest community art center.

Daniel Defenbacher, a FAP coordinator, became the gallery’s first director. To signal accessibility, “Walker Art Gallery” became “Walker Art Center” (WAC). WAC provided classes, exhibited local artists, and sponsored traveling exhibitions. As the economy improved, FAP waned, and by 1943, WPA involvement ended.

WAC distanced itself from traditional museums by exhibiting modern art in 1940. It further challenged artistic tradition with its first performance event, Spring Dance Festival. Two years later, The Large Blue Horses by Franz Marc became WAC’s first modern acquisition.

In 1951, H. Harvard Arnason became director. A former professor at the University of Minnesota, Arnason emphasized academic scholarship and modernism. He launched the Center Arts Council, organizer of WAC’s film and performing arts.

In 1961, Martin Friedman became WAC’s director. His age—thirty-six— made him one of the youngest museum directors in the US. Under Friedman, WAC became more ambitious and contemporary. In 1963 alone, it welcomed avant-garde composer John Cage and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, organized 10 American Sculptors and Adolph Gottlieb (entries to the 7th São Paulo Biennial), and established an artist-in-residence program.

By the late 1960s, WAC needed repairs and more space In 1969, the building was razed, and two years later, WAC reopened in a minimalistic building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes. It resembled stacked cubes and featured outdoor terraces and subdued surfaces that made art, not architecture, the focal point.

WAC established a performing arts department in 1970, and three years later, the film and video department began. In 1981, Friedman proposed a sculpture garden to the Minneapolis Parks Service. The garden, designed by Barnes, turned the “Parade,” a once-popular park, into WAC’s outdoor gallery. It opened in 1988.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, WAC sold works from Walker’s original collection and acquired modern works. Contemporary acquisitions included works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Yves Klein. The Regis Dialogue Program (later renamed the Dialogue and Retrospective series) debuted its film screenings and interviews in 1990.

In 1991, Kathy Halbreich became WAC’s fourth director. Under Halbreich, WAC extended accessibility with Free First Saturdays, Free Thursdays, and Explore memberships. In 1996, WAC established the Teen Arts Council, a group of 13 teenaged artists and art enthusiasts who ensure WAC provides teen events.

Article continues after advertisement

As programs and collections expanded, a 2005 addition designed by the firm Herzog & de Meuron added much-needed exhibition space and linked galleries, event areas, and lounges. After Olga Viso, WAC’s fifth director, began her tenure in 2008, she worked to complete Halbreich’s vision for an integrated indoor and outdoor campus by expanding and renovating the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (reopened in 2017). Under her leadership, WAC also acquired nearly 4000 objects from the Merce Cunningham Dance Archive for WAC’s permanent collection. Viso resigned in 2017.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.