Olga Viso was the deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C., when she began working with directors of the Walker Art Center and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on a unique collaboration – to identify and exhibit well-known artists whose life and works were little understood in a contemporary context. Their first selection–Frida Kahlo.
As Viso stepped up from deputy director to director of the Hirshhorn in 2005, she made the reluctant choice to withdraw the museum from the Kahlo exhibition. In September last year, she announced she would leave the Hirshhorn to become Kathy Halbreich’s successor as the Walker’s director. On her third visit to the Walker since that announcement, Viso absorbed a mix of feelings as she toured Frida Kahlo shortly after its opening.
“ It was a hard show to let go, because I was part of birthing it,” Viso says.
In this interview, Viso discusses Frida Kahlo, her mission and role as she comes to the Walker – her first day is January 8 – and how she believes the Walker can move forward by also looking back at its groundbreaking genesis.
Q: How did you feel walking through Frida Kahlo, and why did the Hirshhorn have to bow out of this exhibition?
It was amazing to see such an incredible array of works from such important public and private collections reunited, especially those from Mexican collections. Kathy and Neal (Benezra, SFMOMA’s director) and Hayden Herrera (writer and curator) and I traveled to Mexico City together early on during the show’s inception to see as many collections as possible and figure out how to collaborate with the Mexican government to bring the paintings from Mexico together with works from all over the world. Betsy (Carpenter, Walker curator) just toured me around the show, and some of the really difficult loans to obtain were there. There were also some paintings I’d never seen before from private collections that have not been seen in public in decades.
It was my decision – one of the first decisions I made as director of the Hirshhorn – to not bring the show to Washington. It’s not that I didn’t think it was an important show to do; Kahlo is one of the great artists of the 20th century. It’s just that at the moment I became director of the Hirshhorn, we were seeking to distinguish ourselves more clearly from peer institutions in the city like the National Gallery of Art, which tend to show more established, historical artists like Kahlo. While our colleagues in the field understood the differences between our respective institutional missions, the public often did not. (The revolutionary French artist Yves Klein is the subject of a Walker/Hirshhorn curated retrospective, opening in 2009).
Q: Do you see differences in the contemporary missions of the Walker and the Hirshhorn?
At the core, no. We both seek to enhance public understanding of the art and artists of our time and to catalyze creativity and create community around art and ideas. The commitment to presenting and collecting art from around the globe is also shared. These are all reasons why our museums sought to partner. While the Hirshhorn brought strength and depth in its holdings of modern art, the Walker brought special leadership in its global research initiative. The Walker has been a pioneer in developing curatorial staff expertise, partnering with outside curators, and building a collection that reflects a greater expanse of artistic production around the world. My desire is to fortify and deepen this commitment.
Q: How does your move to the Walker align with your own professional evolution as a curator, your mission and the issues that matter to you as an arts administrator?
The thing that really appealed to me about coming – which is something I tried to do at the Hirshhorn but it takes considerable resources and infrastructure – is the multidisciplinary program. Only a handful of institutions across the country offer equally strong visual and performing arts programs and have such strength in film and media. The Walker has this amazing platform for artists to work. It does not have to rely on partner organizations outside the Walker with varying missions as the Hirshhorn does. It can incite more cross-disciplinary collaborations under its own roof – in its own house. Artists today work in increasingly cross-disciplinary modes and media. One of the things I’m especially interested in is how to cross-germinate more across the disciplines at the Walker and to work with artists to do so.
Q: With each department having such a strong curatorial sense unto itself, what are your roles and mandates coming in as director?
I don’t come in with a specific agenda. I want to spend time understanding the context and culture and the Walker’s identity and just listen and ask questions. I’m very open to what makes sense for this institution. My main objective is to sustain and foster the rich creative environment that has always typified the Walker, so that each department, its staff and programs are leaders. But it is also my job to provoke discussion and dialogue, to ask questions about how we plan and schedule, to encourage more collaboration and experimentation, and to test the boundaries.
I recently reread the Expanding the Center book the Walker published in anticipation of opening its new building, and there’s some beautiful language and ideas there that I think are very special and that are still part of the Walker’s identity and future. The first is the concept of the Walker as a convener and its campus as a contemporary “ town square,” where creativity and community come together. The second is the notion of the Walker as much, much more than a museum. It is a dynamic center for contemporary visual and performing arts and that should be celebrated because it makes the Walker unique.
Q: Tell me about your entry points into curatorial work and arts administration.
I’m from Florida – three hours north of Miami, from a small beach town on the East Coast called Melbourne. I didn’t grow up in a big city going to MoMA and the Met. I entered the art world through my own work as an artist – painting and drawing from a very young age – and my parents always fostered my desire to express myself. I was going to go the advertising/PR/marketing route, which is what I did a few years out of college. I was a good graphic designer, but I soon realized I wasn’t going to make it as a fulltime artist, and I really didn’t want to work in the corporate world. So I went to graduate school and studied art history at Emory University in Atlanta and worked at the High Museum of Art in the director’s office. I was introduced to museum administration early on in my career and understood and appreciated the institution holistically and organically.
But I always knew I wanted to focus on contemporary art and work directly with living artists. I loved how artists challenged me to think and view the world differently. After five years at the High, I returned to Florida and worked at the Norton Museum of Art, where I was one of the museum’s first contemporary art curators. I spent a lot of time in Miami visiting local artists; this was in the early 1990s at a time when many artists from Cuba were coming to this community. I also began to travel more as a curator to see exhibitions. I remember going to Dia in New York and seeing Robert Gober’s groundbreaking installation of the early 1990s. I remember how much it blew my mind. That experience affirmed that I needed to work with living artists to create platforms for the public to engage more deeply with contemporary art. Eight years later, I had the privilege of taking Bob’s work to the Venice Biennial as the official U.S. representative. (The Walker has an expansive collection of Gober’s work, some of which is currently on view in Quartet: Barney, Gober, Levine, Schtte).
Q: You seemed really inspired as a curator. What made you turn to the administrative side?
It was a challenging transition, and a decision that any curator struggles to make, because the demands of running an organization pull you away from the curatorial work and organizing exhibitions. I will admit that I had to be coaxed a little, and I was lucky to have great mentors, like Kathy, who encouraged me.
Being a director is highly creative, but in different ways than being a curator. My role now is to generate a rich creative environment and foster the space for others to do the great shows they desire to do. It’s about bringing all the right elements and ingredients together to create synergies among creative and passionate people as well as potential supporters for these efforts. It’s about building relationships and putting a great team of people together and sharing the passion and importance of what we do with others.
Q: Are there certain ways of presenting artists that you’d like to see the Walker take on or bring to a different level?
One of the things that has worked really beautifully at the Hirshhorn in the last several years has been to bring artists and their perspectives forward very visibly in the program. We have invited artists to work with our curators to install the museum’s collection, to curate programs for our After Hours events, to be resident artists for our youth programs, to give weekly gallery talks, design museum advertising, and create visible temporary projects and performances around the museum’s campus. Our artist podcast interviews and “ Meet the Artist” lecture series have also been hugely successful. These gestures have helped to make the museum much more accessible, approachable, and personable. Hearing artistic voices seems to demystify the experience of art and opens windows to the creative process. These voices also resonate for the really initiated art crawlers, too. Working with artists has also given our curators more freedom to experiment and take chances.
These endeavors already happen here, but I’m really interested in hearing more about the Walker’s history from the staff, board and community. What I really want to do is invite those close to the Walker to go back a little bit in time, to a time when we were envisioning being in this new building, to the dreams we had, and to go back and say “ Wow, we achieved this,” and “ We accomplished that.” But I also want to hear about what may have been left unfinished and perhaps undone, and why. I want to understand and know that full history. It will certainly give me a sense of the culture here, the history of thinking, and this community’s hopes for this inspiring institution that has served as model for me at the Hirshhorn and so many other museum leaders. I think it’s a great moment to get in touch with the Walker’s roots and aspirations before we move forward.
Some of the board members have talked about how this next phase of the Walker is “ more evolution than revolution.” While it might be a time for the Walker to focus and refine its vision, that’s not to say that there may not still be a revolution or two in the offing. That’s always a possibility – and a necessity, frankly – when you work in the really fertile creative environment we do and one that is shaped and inspired by living artists.
One of the things that meant a great deal to me as I accepted my new position at the Walker was an email from a colleague that described the Walker as the “ closest thing to Utopia” left among arts institutions today. That is such a powerful comment, such a revealing comment, and it says so much about what a special place this is. As Kathy always said, it’s a “ safe place for unsafe ideas,” and that resonates very strongly with me. I’m very committed to preserving that space for the Walker and our audiences.