More than 125 years ago, a Minneapolis man built a room onto his house, mounted his favorite paintings on the walls, and opened his door to everyone who wanted to come in. In 1879, lumber baron Thomas Barlow (T. B.) Walker’s art gallery was a unique venue for the art of its time. It was also a modest start for a contemporary art center now revered throughout the world for the range and vitality of its visual arts, performing arts, and media arts programs.
As T. B. Walker continued to collect, he expanded the space, and by 1915 it included 14 rooms, each with a different theme. The Jade Room, the Jean-Claude Cazin Room, and the Miniature Room, for example, were decorated with paintings hung salon-style from floor to ceiling, classical sculptures, antique furniture, and rare Oriental rugs. In 1916, Walker purchased the land now known as Lowry Hill. Two years later, he offered the site and his collections to the City of Minneapolis on the condition that a public gallery be built. After five years of negotiations with no progress, Walker withdrew his offer and built his own museum, hiring local architects Long & Thorshov to design it. On May 21, 1927, the Walker Art Galleries opened on the present site of the Walker Art Center.
Seventy-five years ago, when the Depression-era Works Progress Administration and the Federal Art Project proposed reanimating T. B. Walker’s personal gallery of historic paintings, his heirs and thousands of Minneapolis citizens collaborated to create a model regional art center. It was to serve as both an inspiring “meeting place for all the arts” and a repository for a distinguished and varied art collection. Thus, the years 1939–1940 marked the birth of the Walker Art Center as we know it today. The institution’s mission—to both champion the production of new art and preserve historically important cultural artifacts—has shaped a collection that has evolved well beyond the original tastes and vision of its founder.
The museum’s focus on modern art began in the 1940s, when a gift from Mrs. Gilbert Walker made possible the acquisition of works by important artists of the day, including pieces by Franz Marc, Lyonel Feininger, and Edward Hopper. During the 1960s, the Walker organized increasingly ambitious exhibitions that circulated to museums in the United States and abroad. The Walker’s collections expanded to reflect crucial examples of contemporary artistic developments; concurrently, performing arts, film, and education programs grew proportionately and gained their own national prominence throughout the next three decades. Today, the Walker is recognized internationally as a singular model of a multidisciplinary arts organization and as a national leader for its innovative approaches to audience engagement.
Adjacent to the Walker is the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, one of the nation’s largest urban sculpture parks. When the Garden opened in 1988, it was immediately heralded by the New York Times as “the finest new outdoor space in the country for displaying sculpture.” The Garden’s centerpiece and most popular work is Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985–1988), which has become a beloved symbol of the Twin Cities. The Garden has demonstrated extraordinary appeal in the community, and is a vital force for bringing new visitors inside the Walker and building new audiences for contemporary art. For example, more than 20,000 people attended the Walker’s two-day Rock the Garden music festival in June 2014.
The Walker’s expansion, which was designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in April 2005. The increased indoor and outdoor facilities, including the William and Nadine McGuire Theater, allow the Walker to share more of its resources with its growing audiences—from works in the collections and books in the library to an inside view of the artist’s own creative process. Increasingly, this ability to link ideas from different disciplines and art forms is seen as a model for cultural institutions of the future. A key aspect of the design is a “town square,” a sequence of spaces that, like the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, draws people for informal conversation, interactive learning, and community programs.
Today the Walker Art Center ranks among the five most-visited modern/contemporary art museums in the United States and, together with the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, attracts more than 700,000 visitors per year.