Institutions must evolve, not simply to survive but to command their futures. While I feel far too removed from the Corcoran to comment with authority, what I can do is offer an inspiring model of re-imagination outside Washington: the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
This institution, which I now have the privilege to lead, has boldly reinvented itself twice in its nearly 140-year history. Located in the home of philanthropist T.B. Walker, this first public art gallery west of the Mississippi opened its doors free of charge to residents of a pioneer American city by showcasing Barbizon and Hudson River School paintings and Chinese jades. In 1939, the Works Progress Administration harnessed community will to create a model regional art center. Renamed the Walker Art Center, the institution reframed its mission to support living artists and engage new audiences. Over the next several decades, as other cultural institutions in the area gained strength and focus, the Walker shifted its priorities and in 1971 reopened its doors as a multidisciplinary art center committed to collecting and commissioning some of the most groundbreaking art of our time.
The Walker today is one of a handful of art centers in the world that presents the visual, film and performing arts in one facility. It joins the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Hirshhorn as one of the five most visited museums of modern and contemporary art in the country. In 2012, the Walker’s collections and facilities resemble little of T.B. Walker’s 1879 vision and holdings. Indeed, most of the founding donor’s works of art were dispersed to other museums in Minneapolis or sold, and now more than 90 percent of the Walker’s holdings consist of art made after 1960.
Cultural institutions thrive when there is strong alignment between the staff and the board and when dynamic synergies exist with the communities an organization serves. This has been part of the formula of success at the Walker, where an enlightened founding family also remains involved.
Over the past several decades, the Corcoran has suffered periods of misalignment as a succession of leaders and donors — each with radically different directions and agendas — have attempted to galvanize support, redirect the institution and find new synergies in a vastly competitive museum landscape and in a community that has, in many ways, resisted its evolution.
Viso is executive director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.