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The Walker thinks globally, but does it act locally?

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The new Walker. How local artists feel about the Walker depends on what kind of artist is talking, and whether they're willing to publicly express their opinions. (MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)
The reopening of the Walker Art Center is drawing international attention, but some wonder what impact the $70 million expansion project will have on the local art scene. Some local artists embrace the Walker's mission, while others have long felt excluded.

Minneapolis, Minn. — How local artists feel about the Walker depends on what kind of artist is talking, and to some extent whether they're willing to publicly express their opinions.

For example, Minneapolis sculptor Allen Christian sounds almost dejected when asked to describe the Walker's relationship with local visual artists.

"Unattainable," Christian says. "Really a disconnect with the community."

Compare that to Twin Cities choreographer Emily Johnson. Last year, Johnson's dance company Catalyst performed an ambitious work commissioned by the Walker in a Minneapolis warehouse. Johnson says the support she's received is a confidence boost, given the Walker's reputation.

"To have an institution that is in tune with international, sort of large-scale performance companies, also be in tune to what is happening here and be in tune to what I'm doing here, is good for the community," says Johnson, "and certainly has been good for me, just in terms of how I think my work can affect people."

The Walker has long sponsored events to showcase local performance talent, including A Choreographer's Evening and the Momentum Dance Series. It also carefully selects two or three local artists a year for a commission.

But Philip Bither, the Walker's performing arts curator, says bringing the best, most innovative national and international performers to the Walker is its primary mission, and local artists seem to accept that. He says the Walker often asks members of the local dance community what it values most about the Walker.

"And number one was not, 'It's a place I can present my work, or somebody who's going to commission me,' it was, 'You bring new ideas and really fantastic performance experiences to me, which opens up my world and allows me to innovate in new ways,'" Bither says.

Bither says he tries to meet three or four times a week with local artists to talk about their work and how to get it beyond Minnesota. He says sometimes he can be helpful behind the scenes.

"Whether it's my sitting on a panel nationally, or making recommendations to a foundation, or attending presenter conferences, or just sending an e-mail to a friend who does the work I do, to say, 'Hey, you should check this artist out, they're really doing some interesting things,' makes a world of difference for artists," Bither says.

Bither says the expanded Walker facility won't change the museum's mission, just serve it better. That includes the new 385-seat McGuire Theater, with its colossal fly space and cutting-edge technology.

Bither says the theater will allow the Walker to fully support the creation of new works from beginning to end, by some of the world's best performance artists. He says that will pay dividends for the local art scene.

"One, we get on the map more than we have, because we're the home where some significant world premieres have happened," Bither says. "Secondly, the artists are living amongst us for two, three, four weeks. Sometimes they're even inviting artists who live here to collaborate with them. They're teaching classes, they're in conversations. They just enliven the cultural life, the whole life of the Twin Cities communities."

While local performance artists generally approve of the level of support the Walker provides, the situation is more unsettled among visual artists.

"There is a certain, at best, ambivalence toward the Walker in the local visual arts community, and at worst, a certain pain and quite a bit of anger," says Doug Padilla, a painter, curator and arts activist. "And I'm not sure the Walker cares about that."

Padilla says there's always going to be a huge gap between what an institution like the Walker does curatorially and the goings-on in the local art scene that surrounds it. But he finds it funny that Minnesota artists tend to get more strokes outside the Twin Cities than they do here.

"The joke in the art world is, how do you get a show at the Walker? By getting one at the Tate Modern in London, or by getting one in Berlin, or even by getting one at the contemporary in Fort Worth," says Padilla. "They don't pay attention to you here until you've made it big somewhere else. I think that's a little provincial."

The resentment some local visual artists have toward the Walker doesn't surprise Richard Flood, the museum's chief curator.

"People would have to have problems," he says. "If those problems didn't exist, it would mean that we weren't doing our work. First of all, the good news is it's a place where people actually do want to show."

Flood says if the Walker devoted more resources to showing regional artists, its usefulness to them might, ironically, start to depreciate.

"Because all of a sudden, the tension would be out of the program. And the people who come to look would be really supporters, rather than critics or voyagers who are out looking for something new and something that advances the case of art," Flood says.

The joke in the art world is, how do you get a show at the Walker? By getting one at the Tate Modern in London, or in Berlin, or even in Fort Worth. They don't pay attention to you here until you've made it big somewhere else.
- Visual artist Doug Padilla

Flood says the Walker features one local exhibition a year as part of its Jerome Foundation-funded Dialogue series. It also provides support for, a Web site that gives free space online to thousands of local artists. But Flood says it's mainly interested in telling the stories that fuel its ever more global, multi-disciplinary mission.

"When you can, you work with your own community," Flood says. "We have incredible partnerships all over the community that go very, very deep, and which will be continued into this new configuration of the spaces. But, a major, major point is to bring the best of the new here."

Sculptor Allen Christian wonders whether the Walker is spending too much time looking for the best of the new in other countries, as opposed to right under its nose.

"Aren't we part of this global community in addition?" Christian says. "So why does it seem like we're excluded from that vision?"

Christian isn't sure whether the Walker's expansion will change the dynamics of its relationship with local visual artists. He says he was encouraged by what the museum did when its doors were closed this past year, which it called "Walker Without Walls."

"Walker Without Walls really forced them to kind of look not so much outside this region, but to their neighborhood, and hopefully that message will be passed on once they open the new building," Christian says.

Painter Doug Padilla thinks things will improve if the Walker dramatically strengthens its presence at local art shows, and picks up the phone more often on behalf of local artists.

He also suggests it band together with other Twin Cities museums and bring back the Minnesota Biennale, the biannual exhibition of regional artists it used to co-sponsor.

Most of all, he thinks Walker officials and members of the local visual arts community need to talk. Padilla is willing to mediate.

"All the curators can sit up there, and I'll get 200, 300, 400, 500 artists to show up," Padilla says. "We can yell at each other. We'll all survive, and maybe we'll come out at the other end so there's actually some energy going back and forth."

Padilla says this isn't about a bunch of disgruntled mid-career local artists who want to have a show at the Walker, it's about re-establishing a dialogue. He says the Walker needs to convince local visual artists it does care about what's happening -- here.

"I also acknowledge the beauty, the wonder, the joy, the greatness of bringing the world to Minnesota," Padilla says. "It's a two-edged sword. That's why it's hard. I can't demonize the Walker. They're doing great things. But we have to -- where there's great light, there's great shadow."

Minnesota artists will be well-represented during the Walker reopening celebration, at least on the performance side. Three of the 10 major artists the Walker will present are from here, including the dance duo Hijack, choreographer Joe Chvala with vocalist Ruth Mackenzie, and guitarest Steve Tibbets.

Some 60 local musicians will take part in a marathon tribute to next weekend's special guest, jazz legend Ornette Coleman.