The Walker was founded on a question. “Shall we take it?” In 1939 the citizens of Minneapolis were offered an opportunity to start a federally funded art center. The answer? Yes. A resounding yes.
But how exactly did this offer come about? And what did it mean?
In 1935 a young architect and industrial designer left his architecture firm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to become the state director of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project for North Carolina. That young man, Daniel S. Defenbacher, launched the Community Art Center program. His vision was to open the art world to every American citizen, and Defenbacher saw the community art center as a gathering place for learning, culture and amusement, a destination, a town square with a mission to support all the arts. As he expressed it:
Art springs from human need and its values must be based upon human values. The museum therefore must measure its vitality in terms of service to the human need in its community. It must integrate art with the experience of living.
His experiment in North Carolina was a tremendous success and the Community Art Center program quickly became a national movement that spread across the country with Defenbacher at the helm. Between 1935 and 1939, Defenbacher established more than 70 art centers. The Walker Art Center would be his last and the largest.
Defenbacher spent most of his time traveling around the country personally overseeing the creation and operation of the art centers. According to his employment records he spent two to three days a month in Washington, DC, with Thomas Parker, the assistant director of the Federal Art Project, while the remainder of his time was spent traveling across the country looking at communities. In order for a community to be considered for an art center, a sponsor, such as an arts council or committee, would contact their WPA State Director. In turn, the WPA State Director would recommend communities to Defenbacher for consideration. After a site visit, Defenbacher would require that the local committee launch a fundraising campaign. He would estimate the total amount necessary to start an art center and then require the committee to raise 25 percent. He did this so that the community would embrace the concept and feel ownership in the center. After the funds were raised, the WPA would contribute the remaining 75 percent. The WPA contribution mostly paid for salarie, with a small amount allocated for general operation. It was up to the community to pay for maintenance costs, renovations, equipment and transportation.
Across the country Defenbacher spoke passionately about the potential of the art center system highlighting successful centers in his talks. One of his shining examples was Iowa’s Sioux City Art Center. “It had no gallery building, no art collection,” he wrote. “For quarters the owner of a business building donated the basement. For equipment the various trade unions donated labor, the merchants donated materials, and the citizens and civic organizations gave cash – in all, about $17,000. In six months over 56,000 people – well over one-half the entire population – visited and used the center.” With buy-in from the community, Defenbacher’s goal was that each art center would become self-supporting. WPA funding was year to year and, given the economic recovery in place, Defenbacher knew that that federal funding would only last a few years more.
In 1938, after three years on the road establishing art centers, Defenbacher was exhausted and looking for another opportunity, perhaps as a museum director. But he was also looking for one final site for the art center program. He wanted it to be outstanding, larger than any of the other art centers, something that would become the model for the modern museum. As fate would have it, at about this time Clement Haupers, WPA State Director of Minnesota, contacted him about an opportunity in Minneapolis.
Haupers wrote that the Minnesota Art Council (MAC) had identified a potential site in the T.B. Walker Gallery. MAC, founded by Ruth Lawrence, curator of the University Gallery (Weisman Art Museum), had formed a group of like-minded art lovers in 1938. The primary focus of MAC was on contemporary, living artists. At the time there was no gallery in the Twin Cities providing a place for Minnesota artists to exhibit their work. Lawrence contacted Bertha Walker, who in turn convinced her husband, Archie Walker, and the T.B. Walker Foundation to donate space in the Walker gallery to MAC for contemporary exhibitions. The result was the 1938 exhibition Living Minnesota Artists held in the Walker Art Gallery. Building on MAC’s success, the Council had the idea of approaching the WPA for funding to establish an art center. At this point, Lawrence, who remained on the MAC board, took a back seat on the council, as she had many other activities with the university, and felt she could not devote any more time to the project. However, she was reassured that MAC would thrive under the leadership of Rolf Ueland. He was a successful attorney, violinist, craftsman, and art enthusiast.1 Once again in 1938 MAC contacted Archie and Bertha Walker for their support, and this time they convinced the T.B. Walker Foundation to turn over the entire Walker gallery to MAC. With an art council and a facility in place, Defenbacher came to visit on November 15, 1938, and what he found inspired him.
In a letter from that same day written by Louise Walker, daughter of Archie and Bertha, to her brother, Hudson, she recounts the very first visit of Debenbacher and Haupers to the Walker Art Gallery.
“Dear Duke,” she wrote, “I’m all steamed up so listen carefully. This afternoon, …, two men came barging in on the privacy of my basement room, but instead of the usual gawkers who wander in by mistake and curiosity, they turned out to be the men with whom Pa had a long talk yesterday. One was Clement Haupers. …. The other was Dan Deffenbach (sp), regional director or some such big shot in the Federal art project, and who runs and flies about the country organizing art centers. As soon as I realized that I didn’t have to watch and see that they wouldn’t abscond with a snuff bottle we began talking and walking about the building while D. marked down what there was in the way of collection and space. He was so enthusiastic at the material we have there that most of the time he wouldn’t even listen to what we were saying so hard was he planning to himself how he would arrange it all.”2
After the site visit, MAC successfully raised $5,500 from the community in order to receive the $35,000 from the WPA. The T.B. Walker Foundation donated the museum building and collection and paid the utilities and maintenance while the WPA paid the salaries. MAC oversaw all the operations and began looking for a director. Its members were impressed with Defenbacher’s efforts and offered him the position. In November 1939 Defenbacher officially resigned his post with the WPA and became the first Walker Art Center director. In a few short months, he had transformed the Walker Art Gallery from a nineteenth century salon-style museum to a dynamic twentieth century art center.
When the Walker Art Center opened on January 4, 1940 the 3,500 visitors saw colorful displays, innovative exhibition cases, and numerous graphics and explanatory panels. The guest of honor was Thomas Hart Benton, the outspoken Regionalist and WPA champion. The press coverage was impressive, including a live radio broadcast of the event on WCCO. There were artists demonstrating their work and WPA dignitaries on hand. After the opening, MAC and the Walker staff began to work on the programming including special exhibitions, workshops, an art school for adults and children, dance recitals and film screenings. The next challenge would be to sustain the programming beyond federal funding.
WPA funding would end entirely in December 1942. The United States was at war and the era of the New Deal was over. Many of the center’s staff either joined the armed forces or were drafted. Even though he was short-handed, Defenbacher remained as director. Under his leadership the exhibition and education programs continued to expand including Everyday Art Gallery, the first dedicated design space in a museum, and the influential Everyday Art Quarterly (later renamed Design Quarterly). Defenbacher stayed on at the Walker until 1950. His enthusiasm for start-up operations led him to the Fort Worth Art Center. Later he became president of the California College of Arts and Crafts. He also took up architecture again and was associated with architect Victor Gruen. Eventually he retired to Florida, where he passed away in 1986. Defenbacher was an energetic, talented organizer with a passion for art, and under his leadership the groundwork was laid for what the Walker Art Center would become. The question he posed 75 years ago, “Shall we take it?” continues to remind us that—like art itself—the Walker is a conversation that we continue to have, as artists, as audiences, and as a community.
1 Ueland would be president of MAC from 1938–1946 and later after MAC was dissolved in 1946 he became the first president of the Walker Art Center board of directors
2 Defenbacher’s first visit must have impressed Louise Walker very much. They worked together over the next several months preparing for the Walker Art Center opening and became more than just colleagues. Later Dan and Louise were married and were a dynamic couple in the art world before they divorced in 1950.