The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Philip Bither
Photo: Kyoko Yoshida
Philip Bither
Senior curator of performing arts of the Walker Art Center

Walker Art Center
Walker Art Center
Photo: Gene Pittman
Walker Art Center
Photo: Gene Pittman

Walker Art Center
Walker Art Center, 2005. Herzog & de Meuron expansion (Theater Tower) on left and Barnes building (Gallery Tower) on right. February 2005 - a few months before grand opening.
Photo: Gene Pittman
The Walker’s permanent collection includes work from artists such as Matthew Barney, Roy Lichtenstein, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Andy Warhol, and its performing arts program has commissioned Merce Cunningham, Ornette Coleman, Wooster Group, Robert Wilson, Bill T. Jones, Meredith Monk, Mabou Mines, Trisha Brown and hundreds of others.

The Walker was founded in 1879 by Thomas Barlow Walker (1840-1928) and was formally established at its current location in 1927 as the first public art gallery in the Upper Midwest.

The Works Progress Administration was the largest New Deal agency, employing millions of people and affecting most every locality in the United States, especially rural and western mountain populations. It was created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidential order, and funded by Congress on April 8, 1935. Between 1935 and 1943 the WPA provided almost 8 million jobs. The program built many public buildings, projects and roads and operated large arts, drama, media and literacy projects. Almost every community in America has a park, bridge or school constructed by the agency.

An advisory group which provided support and advice for the Walker’s programs. The Walker’s staff usually coordinated the CAC meetings.

The Guthrie Theater was founded in the city of Minneapolis, MN, by Sir Tyrone Guthrie in 1963 as the first regional theater with a resident acting company that would perform the classics in rotating repertory with the highest professional standards. After four decades, the original Guthrie closed down and moved to a new location by the Mississippi River to open a new theater complex with three different stages in 2006.

The Guthrie Theater was housed in the same building with the Walker’s gallery and other facilities until it closed down to relocate and re-open in 2006.

Titled “BITS & PIECES PUT TOGETHER TO PRESENT A SEMBLENCE OF A WHOLE,” the catalogue can be purchased at the Walker gift shop or online. The Walker has been publishing catalogues every 8 or so years.
Presenter Interview
The Minneapolis-based Walker Art Center, an international hub for cutting-edge performing arts 
The Walker Art Center, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is one of the most distinguished multidisciplinary arts institutions in the United States boasting a long history of activities. The Walker occupies a 17-acre (approx. 6.9 hectare) urban campus that includes museum and theater facilities as well as a sculpture garden. Its programs include modern and contemporary visual arts, performing arts, and film and video, design and new media. We interviewed Philip Bither, senior curator of performing arts, about the Walker’s programs that have been presented and the support given to cutting-edge performance artists through residencies and commissioning programs since the 60’s.
(Interview: Kyoko Yoshida, Director, U.S./Japan Cultural Trade Network, Inc.)

The Walker Art Center is considered one of the nation's “big five” multidisciplinary art centers for modern and contemporary art (*1). Along with its visual arts collections and exhibitions, the Walker’s performing arts programs are internationally renowned. Can we begin by asking you about the history and the vision of the Walker. Did it start as a gallery?
    Walker Art Center in its earlier days was a gallery, meaning that it represented the collection of T.B. Walker (*2), who was a major figure in the industrialized Twin Cities. He was involved in the lumber business and had his own personal art collection which he was interested in opening up to the public. He was a person quite interested in the arts and traveled the world extensively. He had a very eclectic collection ranging from folk art to very traditional paintings of many different eras to more contemporary works. The first Walker Art Center was in his own home and it was on this same piece of land where the Walker Art Center stands today.
    The focus of Walker Art Center as a contemporary art center really did not begin until the 1940s, coming out of our role as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) (*3) project during the Roosevelt administration. The Walker not only started to provide work for artists but also started to connect the art to a much broader general public. WPA really helped to ground the Walker as a place to reach out and connect with everyday people of the Midwest, instead of remaining an elitist institution. I think that some of our outreach and education programs and some of our interests in connecting contemporary art to a broad-based population stem all the way back to this time.
    The Walker continued to be primarily a public museum during the 40’s and the 50’s. In the 50s, however, a volunteer committee, called the Center Arts Council (CAC) (*4), was formed, and they began to recommend and even help produce a number of dance recitals, jazz concerts, lectures, and film programs. While they were not adopted as an official part of the curatorial mission, they came under the banner of the Walker, and great artists were invited to perform and important lectures were held. That slowly morphed into more professional presentation of performing arts and film programs.
    In the early 1960s, the first coordinator of the CAC, John Ludwig was hired. He was a staff member of the Walker for coordinating events at the Guthrie Theater. Then, a woman by the name of Suzanne Weil took the program and really expanded the programming in the performing arts. It was Martin Friedman who became the director of the Walker in the early 60’s and was really a transformational figure for the Walker that hired Suzanne and encouraged her to have as experimental and exciting a program as she could put together. He was very committed to multiple disciplines and put the Walker on the map internationally. Suzanne was also presenting many of the most famous rock bands at the Guthrie Theater (*5), which was originally seeded in part by the Walker. It was the Walker Board members who brought Tyrone Guthrie over and gave the initial seed money and the land that was owned by the Walker throughout the history of the time with the Guthrie. (*6) So, when the Guthrie wasn’t using the theater facility, the Walker could have its own programs happening there.
    Through the 60s, rock bands from the Who to Led Zeppelin to Frank Zappa, and a lot of folk singers were presented. At that time, there wasn’t a developed industry of rock and roll promotion, and I think that Martin Friedman and Suzanne Weil felt that in the 1960s, where a lot of the excitement and energy that was happening was in the world of rock’n roll, and I think that they were interested in connecting open-minded willing to experiment generation who was making the 60s music and rock to the threads of exciting innovations happening in visual arts.
    In addition to pop music, Sue brought leading figures in Jazz, such as Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and major new music figures including Philip Glass and the Steve Reich Ensemble. There were also really important residencies by dance artists including Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, as well as major theatrical innovators like Mabou Mines, Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson. These artists were all making stops here and even getting commissioned by the Walker. That continued throughout the 70’s and 80’s.
    It was the year of 1970, however, that is an important point to look at because it was the year that the performing arts became an official department within the Walker. Then, we were really seen not as a subsidiary or ancillary aspect of the Walker, but an official aspect of what the Walker was all about. Until that point, the concerts and recitals were viewed as side-projects to a visual arts center. Now we were really emerging as a multidisciplinary arts center.
    The programming through the 70’s and 80’s did not primarily happen at the Walker. There really wasn’t a theater here, so the various curators beginning with Suzanne Weil would find spaces all over town. They’d find co-presenting partners and had often encouraged artists to create site-specific projects all over the Twin Cities. I think that the Walker’s international reputation in the performing arts began to be established with these kinds of commissions and residencies. These artists were recognized internationally, and they’d talk about how the Walker sponsored or commissioned their works. From the 60’s on, there was much openness to innovative international work, but the focus was primarily on American artists.

Did the Walker start performing arts programs to attract more people to contemporary visual arts, which often were seen as difficult to understand?
    I think that even from the start, it was less of a tactic or a strategy to find new audiences, but rather it came from a view that there were a lot of important artists but they just didn’t happen to be working in the plastic arts. They worked in sound, or they worked in movement but they deserved the same kind of support and platform that sculptors and painters had been given at the Walker. It was of course, wonderful that new audiences were coming to the Walker, but it came out more from an ethic or a belief that contemporary expressions had many forms and it was far beyond just what you can do in the gallery space.
    At that period in the 60’s and 70’s in America even major figures such as John Cage or Merce Cunningham or Philip Glass weren’t given theaters to perform in. They didn’t have very many places to play in New York or in other parts of the country. The traditional theaters that were doing long runs were still working maybe with Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey and others, but they hadn’t really opened up to avant-garde at all. So, those artists needed to look at arts centers or gallery spaces. Some of the most interesting work in New York, for instance, was happening in SoHo in gallery spaces or in loft spaces or in warehouses. The Walker served a very critical role as a significant institution to put its name behind these innovators. Some of the events were quite provocative happenings and things that really tested the boundaries of propriety. Giving them the stamp of approval from a major institution helped a number of artists transition into touring their work around the country because then they were viewed as a little more accepted or acceptable.
    When we reopened after the expansion in 2005, we did a new catalogue of our permanent collection (*7). It was the first time that we really had a lot of information about the history of the different art forms, including the performing arts in addition to the visual arts. We’re very proud of it because I think that this was a further step toward a sense of equality between the different artistic disciplines and the performing arts programs to become part of the written history of the Walker.
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