Rendering of the renovated Walker grounds in Minneapolis
Design rendering courtesy of the Walker Art Center, design by Oslund & Associates
It’s harder than ever to get to the Walker. Construction has turned Hennepin into a gauntlet of rolling rage, and the Walker’s own massive reconstruction project hasn’t helped. Never mind that the garage has always been the best way to get into the Walker; for those who’ve never ponied up the extra four bucks to park inside, there’s bound to be some confusion.
And if you do manage to get there, the Walker isn’t quite as much fun right now. The Sculpture Garden is closed, the trees are coming out, and Frank Gehry’s Standing Glass Fish has been relocated to the Weisman Art Museum, where it communes with the spirit of its creator. The artist-designed mini-golf is nine holes on the roof this year. Meanwhile, Rock the Garden will be rocking Boom Island Park (June 18). And perhaps most distressing, the International Cat Video Festival has been canceled—forever.
Such are the aggravations of progress.
When it’s all over, things will be better—in some cases much better—than they were before. That is, unless you had your heart set on holding your kid’s bar mitzvah in the Cowles Conservatory in January, in which case you need a new plan.
The centerpiece of the Walker’s reconstruction project is a new entrance pavilion on Vineland Place facing the Sculpture Garden. This is fantastic because it will clarify once and for all where the Walker’s front door is. Until now, no one has really known. Architecturally speaking, the building’s official main entrance faces Hennepin, but this is really a ghost entrance, because only one person has ever used it and he died in 1983. When the Walker and the Guthrie shared a lobby, the Guthrie established Vineland as the building’s logical entry point. But after the theater was demolished, confusion reigned once more. Something had to be done.
The Sculpture Garden itself is going to be vastly improved as well. For one thing, you’ll be able to see it from the road as the wall of trees is going to be replaced by a bunch of smaller, less obtrusive trees (larch, locust, maple, birch, oak), and 16 additional sculptures will be dotting the landscape. The only real casualty is the Cowles Conservatory—the former home of Gehry’s famous fish—which will no longer be a four-season sanctuary from the elements. Turns out, heating a giant glass greenhouse in Minnesota is very expensive, so the walls and plants are coming out, and the whole thing is being turned into an “open pavilion.”
The Sculpture Garden’s new normal will start falling into place again next summer, when the art returns and the new trees and grass take root. (The new Vineland Place entrance is scheduled to open in November 2016.)
The governing idea behind all of this activity is to create a “unified” 19-acre campus that will also serve as a gateway to the proposed Hennepin Avenue Cultural Corridor, the city’s grand plan to use the forces of art to shut Augie’s Cabaret down once and for all. The unification part is welcome; the Walker has always been a perplexing hodgepodge of spaces. The cultural corridor is an aspirational fever dream, of course, but a certain amount of dreaming must happen before reality can step in and ruin everything.
That’s what the Walker is for, anyway—showing us what’s possible with a little imagination and a willingness to scrap ideas that aren’t working or whose time has come and gone. The cat people may never recover, but the rest of us eventually will.