“Three well-mannered anarchists will try to blow up a wall in Minneapolis tonight,” wrote Dan Sullivan in a 1963 issue of the Minneapolis Tribune. He was referring to choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, and painter Robert Rauschenberg, who were about to debut a new work at the Walker. Throughout its history—from the first performing arts presentations in 1940 to the formal establishment of a performing arts department in 1968 to today—the Walker has welcomed artists who have challenged, confronted, and raised eyebrows. In the 1980s and early 1990s, that was especially true, as many artists—including Bill T. Jones, Karen Finley, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Ron Athey—added social issues to aesthetic ones in their Walker works.
John Killacky, who oversaw the Walker’s performing arts department as curator from 1988 to 1996, shares his recollections from that era in a chronology of performances and political moments marked by AIDS, funding battles, and the culture wars of the early 1990s. Currently the executive director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont, Killacky offers a “corporeal coda” as part of our ongoing series on the Twin Cities during a turbulent decade, presented in conjunction with the exhibition This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s.
Trisha Brown (1981)
Throughout the 1980s, the Walker welcomed a number of experimental interdisciplinary artists from the do-it-yourself ’70s to bring their work to scale through workshops, residencies, and commissions. Aesthetics were often contextualized in festival formats. In 1981, Nigel Redden, then director of performing arts at the Walker (1976–1982), mounted the New Dance USA festival, which featured Kei Takei, Karole Armitage, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Bill T. Jones, Margaret Jenkins, and Eiko & Koma, along with other national and local choreographers. The Walker has continued to present many of these artists in the decades since.
The Knee Plays (1984)
Robert Stearns, director of performing arts from 1982 to 1988, workshopped Lee Breuer/Robert Telson’s The Gospel at Colonus (1983) and David Byrne/Robert Wilson’s The Knee Plays (1984) before their opera house debuts. The Walker also was one of the commissioners of Trisha Brown’s Lateral Pass, which featured a set by Nancy Graves and music by Peter Zummo. Its world premiere took place at Hamline University Theater in 1985.
Ann Carlson (1989)
I joined the Walker in the fall of 1988 just as the outdoor Minneapolis Sculpture Garden opened, giving artists yet another performative site to animate. However, the zeitgeist had dramatically changed from an assimilationist abstract postmodernism to a fierce and politicized body politic–akin to many of the visual artists featured in This Will Have Been: Art, Love, & Politics in the 1980s. While the time frame of this exhibition extends through 1992, my corporeal coda ends in 1995.
David Wojnarowicz (1990)
In January 1990, we put together a multidisciplinary festival, Cultural Infidels. Historical films by iconoclasts Andy Warhol and Jack Smith were juxtaposed with John Greyson’s Urinal and Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston. Kathy Acker read from her latest writing, and we exhibited one of David Wojnarowicz’s lithographs. Art and culture were politicized; this is nothing new, and we were eager to support the present day provocateurs.
Karen Finley (1990)
Karen Finley performed her profoundly moving We Keep Our Victims Ready. The first night was sold out. Two plainclothes police officers introduced themselves, telling me they were sent to determine if the performance should be closed down. The vice squad left midway through; there was nothing pornographic.
Other performing artists featured in the Cultural Infidels festival included John Kelly and Guillermo Gómez-Peña.
Bill T. Jones (1990)
In 1990, choreographer Bill T. Jones spoke to me about a new dance he wanted to create. His partner Arnie Zane had given the title on his deathbed: Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I invited Bill to be in residence in partnership with the University of Minnesota.
Still grieving Arnie’s death from AIDS, Jones wanted to find hope as a gay black man in America. He envisioned a final resolving tableau of 52 nude bodies of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, and genders. Local dancers, including students from the University of Minnesota dance department, augmented his company. Before the performance at Northop Auditorium, word came down that the university did not want students to be nude. Despite the warning, they all danced nude.
1990 was a memorable year: Just six years after his Walker residency, Keith Haring, who designed Bill T. Jones’ Secret Pastures, died of AIDS, and Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center’s Dennis Barry was charged with obscenity for exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs—though after a 10-day trial, all charges were dropped.
Senator Jesse Helms pressured the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and grants to Karen Finley, John Fleck, Tim Miller, and Holly Hughes were denied. “Decency Amendment” language was added to reauthorization language for the agency. All NEA recipients were required to sign a “decency” form. The Walker signed it. There was nothing “indecent” in what we presented.
Patrick Scully (1990)
In 1990, Arts Over AIDS had a convening at the Guthrie Lab. I spoke on “Confronting the Face of AIDS,” and Patrick Scully performed his elegiac Too Soon Lost.
Diamanda Galás (1991)
Goth goddess Diamanda Galás intoned her AIDS Plague Mass at the Guthrie Theater on Easter Sunday in 1991. The next year, the Walker presented Ron Vawter’s brilliant Roy Cohn/Jack Smith and Reza Abdoh’s visceral treatise on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, The Law of Remains. Tim Miller performed My Queer Body. On World AIDS Day, Will Parker sang from The AIDS Quilt Songbook, his last concert before he died of AIDS.
Derek Jarman’s film, “Blue” (1992)
David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS at age 37 in 1992, two years after he won a historic Supreme Court Case over an incident in which his visual art was distorted and vilified in a conservative fund-raising campaign by Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association.
In 1993, Huck Snyder, designer for Bill T. Jones’ Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, died of AIDS. The Walker showed Derek Jarman’s film Blue. The screen was filled with Yves Klein blue, devoid of moving images, with voice-over narration from Jarman’s diaries. This blue was the color Jarman had experienced while being administered eye drops to fend off blindness from AIDS. A year later, Jarman was dead.
Ron Vawter (1994)
Actor Ron Vawter died of AIDS in 1994, as did the fierce Marlon Riggs, who became another flashpoint in the NEA funding controversy when his Tongues Untied was broadcast on the PBS series P.O.V. His reel-ness became fundraising fodder for indignant malformed conservative outrage.
Bill T. Jones brought Still/Here to Northrop Auditorium in 1994. Newsweek called it “a work so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of twentieth-century dance seems ensured.” Arlene Croce refused to see it but wrote about it in the New Yorker, dismissing it as “victim art.”
Ron Athey (1994)
In March 1994, the Walker presented Ron Athey’s Four Scenes in a Harsh Life at Patrick’s Cabaret. Athey’s sold-out depiction of pain, suffering, and transcendence was well received by audiences. Theater and dance critics had been invited; none chose to attend.
Three weeks after the event, a visual art critic from the Minneapolis Star Tribune called, wanting to verify some fantastical version of the performance at which she was not present. She warned me to look for her lead story on the front page the next morning.
It was the first of more than 20 articles the paper ran about a performance its critic had not seen. Athey’s work escalated into the summer of 1994’s vituperative fire in the NEA’s reappropriation battle. Senators Robert Byrd and Jesse Helms called for the elimination of the agency, with Helms calling Athey a “cockroach” on the Senate floor. Senator Paul Wellstone rebuked him and defended the Walker, as did Senator Dave Durenberger.
The amount of hate mail I received was astounding. Then came the phone messages: “We got the abortion doctor. You’re next.” After red graffiti was painted on the Walker’s glass doors, security was added for Walker performances and the Minneapolis police included my home in their drive-by route.
Rush Limbaugh lambasted the Walker. “Buckets of AIDS-tainted blood were intentionally thrown at the audience,” he snidely commented, claiming “the audience ran for their lives.” Pat Robertson, on The 700 Club, tarnished the Walker’s good name, and Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association’s direct mail pieces exploited Ron Athey for financial gain.
But the strangest solicitation came from the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, asking for contributions to defend artists such as Athey. To my amazement, they used the same decontextualized and demonized descriptions of his work the right was using—perpetuating lies and misrepresentations. Good intentions had unintended consequences.
Through it all, Walker director Kathy Halbreich and the NEA’s Jane Alexander were extraordinary. Leaders do not always get to choose their battles. Halbreich was gracious and supportive under intense pressure, as were the Walker board and staff, while Alexander stoutly defended Athey’s work and the Walker. Local artists, too, rallied around the Walker and around me. One, Malka Michelson, created a campaign button that included a double entendre of my name: “Safe Sex, Not Art—Be a John.” (To read about the controversy from Athey’s perspective, read his 2015 Artist Op-Ed, “A Polemic of Blood.”)
Reza Abdoh (1995)
In 1995, Reza Abdoh, the Artaud of our day, died of AIDS. This was the last year grants to individual artists were awarded by the NEA, with the exception of literature fellowships and honorifics in jazz and folk arts. Art, love, and politics collapsed—an extraordinary epoch was over.