Short Timer

Walker Art Center director Kathy Halbreich might be the most admired museum director in America,” wrote Tyler Green last year on his influential Modern Art Notes blog. He quoted some of Halbreich’s museum-director colleagues, one of whom said “I watch her from afar, kind of like a guru,” and another who said “Kathy is the model. She’s done incredible things.”

Nevertheless, all incredible things must come to an end. After nearly seventeen years at the Walker, Halbreich will leave her post November 1. Her selection back in 1991 was seen as a radical, even shocking departure from the style of Martin Friedman, who’d been at the helm of the museum for more than three decades. But the Walker’s newest director—Olga Viso, who’s stepping down as director at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. to come to the Twin Cities—has quite a bit in common with her soon-to-be predecessor. That would seem to be a strong testament to all Halbreich achieved.

When you announced your departure last spring, you mentioned having taken a sabbatical the previous fall. What happened during that time?
Professional life is just moving faster and faster, and the responsibilities don’t diminish. I had this remarkable luxury to take three months off. It reminded me how hard it is to program your own days when you’re used to being programmed by the job. I spent some time at a friend’s cabin on Martha’s Vineyard, and this place is magic … I began to return to a very sensory kind of living.

I also went to New York. I wanted to see if I could really look at art, particularly young art, again. I saw about eighty exhibitions and came to the conclusion that I still had this lust for looking, and that was actually quite gratifying. I also at the same time was returning to a certain life. I grew up in New York … I actually was beginning to have a personal life, which has been very prescribed here [in the Twin Cities].

I’ve always been inspired by the fact that you went to a liberal arts college, but did not go on to earn an advanced degree. Do you think there’s an over-emphasis on graduate education in the arts?
Look, now you’re supposed to have MBAs to run these places. Anything you can do to develop your talent pool is worth doing. But there’s just plain old experience, and the fact that I have worked since I was thirteen has served me well. I’m envious of those who’ve had more education, but I’ve had a longer time to play in various jobs.

Since 1991, when you started at the Walker, what’s changed at that institution and in the larger museum world?
We have become bigger, and yes, that’s better, but there’s also peril to it. Bigger institutions require more resources. More resources require greater complexity. And what’s really remarkable about Walker in all of this is that it’s kept its soul.

Another change has to do with being a multidisciplinary institution. The film/video and performing arts departments have been here since the ’70s, but I was able to create greater equality among the disciplines. And you’re going to see more of that. Now the Whitney is building a new building and they want it to include a theater. You look at the Guggenheim’s plans for whatever building they’re going to build and it’s … Walker. You have Wexner [Center for the Arts, in Columbus, Ohio] calling themselves “Baby Walker.” We just followed the artists sooner to this model.

You said a few years ago that “we are realizing there are more creative giants operating across the globe than we were ever aware of before.” Who, or what, are we missing?
The world is much smaller than when I began. The collection at Walker then was basically Euro-Canadian-U.S. It can’t be that anymore. With Hélio Oiticica, we were the only museum in the U.S. to show his retrospective in 1994; people thought I was absolutely crazy. But he is going to be considered one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. This country just didn’t understand because they didn’t know.

What are the powerful countries of the future? Brazil, China, India. Brazil is an enormously fertile ground—that country and Japan have the longest history of really modern art, and the most interesting. China’s later, and India I would say even later still. But these places now are extremely alive.

You’ve also said you don’t believe there are blockbuster names in the contemporary art world. What does that mean for the future of art, artists, exhibitions—for getting bodies into galleries?
That’s a very complex and good question. It starts first with very serious questions about expectations, about what numbers mean and what they signify. Is it good enough for Walker to be one of the top five or six museums for modern or contemporary art, in terms of attendance? Those who get more are MoMA, the Hirshhorn, SFMoMA, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim. And that leaves out contemporary institutions in much bigger cities—L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston—that have much smaller numbers than Walker’s. Is that good? I don’t know. Should we have more people than the Minneapolis Institute of Arts? Is that better?

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