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Walker will be without walls for the next year
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The Walker Art Center is closing its doors for a year to allow completion of its $70 million expansion project. The new Walker is scheduled to open in February, 2005. (Image courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron )
There's a big bash at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis this weekend. When it's over, they'll shut off the lights for a year. The Walker closure will allow the completion of its $70 million expansion project. It'll nearly double the size of the Walker and expand its urban campus to 17 acres. The yearlong closure doesn't mean Walker programming will disappear. The museum plans to stay culturally visible by organizing a range of activities and events around the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Most of the patrons we caught up with this week didn't seem to mind the Walker was closing its doors for a full year. Some saw it as a well-earned sabbatical. Others said a year would go by quickly. But Walker member Kate Tyler is disappointed.

"I think it will leave a hole in the cultural landscape of the Twin Cities, and it certainly will be a loss in my life," Tyler says.

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Image The old Walker

The Walker's challenge over the next year is to keep patrons like Tyler satisfied, while completing the biggest makeover in its history.

Fortunately, says Walker executive director Kathy Halbreich, the Walker's temporary closing is not unprecedented. In 1969, the museum shut down for two years while the current building was being constructed.

Halbreich says back then, the Walker put on some amazing programs outside the building. It forged partnerships with other institutions such as the Southern Theater and Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library -- partnerships that still exist. She says the coming year offers a great opportunity.

"In a way it's just flexing our muscles ... a little bit more, and recognizing the liberty that actually not having one place to operate in offers us," Halbreich says.

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Image New theater

The museum is calling its yearlong schedule of activities "Walker Without Walls." Much of it will be performing arts events. Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither says the goal is to keep the Walker in the public eye as much, if not more, than ever.

Bither says 70 percent of Walker-sponsored performing arts activities take place outside the building every year, so he says the Walker was able to hit the ground running.

There will be events at a number of Twin Cities locales, including the Cedar Cultural Centre, Northrup Auditorium, The Bell Museum, The Soap Factory, The Minneapolis Woman's Club, and the Southern. There will also be what Bither describes as nearly constant activity at the Sculpture Garden. There will even be a commissioned dance work at the old army munitions plant in Arden Hills.

"So we've got a whole array of projects that I think will, I hope, kind of fire the imagination of audiences about where it is appropriate to see contemporary performance," Bither says.

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Image Kathy Halbreich

The Walker is also planning a series of commissioned art billboards at a busy downtown Minneapolis intersection, featuring such contemporary art superstars as Yoko Ono and Matthew Barney.

Janet Abrams, director of the University of Minnesota's Design Institute, doesn't doubt the Walker's ability to keep its public profile high while its building is closed. Abrams, a devoted Walker patron herself, says the larger challenge comes when it reopens -- and must convince the public it was worth the wait.

"I want it to open with a bang, and not just put back the Walker, but to raise the octane rating in proportion to the expansion of floor space," Abrams says.

Walker officials are confident they can do that. Executive Director Halbreich says with 50 percent more gallery space, curators will be able to display more of the Walker's massive permanent collection.

I like to think of the building as a great instrument, and we've yet to learn how to play it.
- Kathy Halbreich, Walker director

"People will be blown away by the richness of the collection, the depth of the collection, our commitment to the artists over the career of their experiments. They're already saying to me they wish they had more gallery space," Halbreich says.

The Walker also wants its new facility to function more as a public gathering spot. There will be more places to sit, a full restaurant and bar, several art-incorporated lounge areas, and expanded after work hours.

The centerpiece of the expansion is a state of the art 385-seat performing arts theater. Curator Philip Bither says it will feature a stage the size and depth of a 1,000-seat theater.

"So it's sort of the best of both worlds -- that you give the artists this incredible generous amount of space and technology in the theater to work with, while at the same time, the audiences still gets this great sense of intimacy," Bither says.

The buzz word the Walker uses to describe its new facility is multi-disciplinary. Kathy Halbreich says the Walker is unique in the U.S. in the way it incorporates so many different departments under one roof. The Walker encompasses visual art, performing arts, and film and video.

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Image Glowing tables

In the current building, they competed for time and space. Halbreich says in the new Walker, design matches mission in that all the departments can simultaneously do their work and pump out art.

"Why we say this a 'more than a museum' experience is that in any given day, you will have the possibility of coming in contact with wonderful works of art from across the disciplines," she says.

Halbreich acknowledges that even with a gleaming new space, there's no guarantee all these goals and aspirations will be immediately realized.

"I like to think of the building as a great instrument," Halbreich says, "and we've yet to learn how to play it."

There's also the question of whether they can fill it. This week the Star Tribune reported that attendance at the Walker dropped by 30 percent from 2001 to 2003. During the same period, attendance at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts rose by 15 percent.

Ann Bitter, deputy director of the Walker, says it's all part of the ebbs and flows of the business. In 2001, the Walker broke attendance records when it featured a highly popular design show and Yoko Ono exhibit. Bitter says usually after a blockbuster season, there's a dropoff.

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Image Philip Bither, Walker curator

"We had the same thing happen after the Picasso exhibition in 1981, the same thing happen after Tokyo Form and Spirit in '87 and '88," Bitter says. "And always the cycle returns. You rise to even higher levels. And I fully expect that to happen at the Walker in the future, especially with the opening of the new building."

Bitter says it's unfair to compare attendance at contemporary art museums with what she calls encyclopedic institutions such as the MIA. She says among contemporary art museums, the Walker has the fifth largest attendance and membership in the country. She says that's impressive because the other four are located in much larger metropolitan areas.

While Bitter predicts an upsurge in Walker attendance when it reopens, she doesn't think her projections are over-reaching. She's forecasting a 20 percent increase during the year it reopens, and then a 10 percent decline the following year, with a gradual trend back upward in the years after that.

"We think our projections are conservative," Bitter says. "We think we're going to have fabulous programs that will entice people not just to come once, but to come again and again. So I'm as confident as a responsible person can be in the future of this institution."

For the Walker, the future begins Saturday at 9 p.m., when it launches an all night party marking its yearlong closure. The bash, which the Walker is calling, "Let's Spend the Night Together," includes special archival installations reviewing the Walker's history, turntable music, continuous film screenings, and a last look at the exhibitions.

There will also be a six-hour marathon performance by the British avant garde performance troupe, Forced Entertainment. The party ends at 5 a.m. Sunday.

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