Opening the Walker's new box

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April 11, 2005 // UPDATED 1:53 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Michael Metzger
Michael Metzger

The finishing touches are nearly finished. Last-minute details will be completed by the last minute. The opening bow and first step are about to be taken for the newly expanded - and extensively branded - Walker Art Center that opens for business and inspection this weekend.

The $130 million expansion includes a dazzling 384-seat theater, education areas, a restaurant and new galleries doubling the amount of avant-garde art Walker patrons can view. All that and more is housed in a five-story cube bundled in luminous, crumpled aluminum mesh.

Its doors open to the public on Sunday, April 17 with a 12-hour opening featuring tours, performances and film screenings. Members of the art center will be able to attend the exclusive preview party on Saturday, April 16.

A highlight of Sunday's planned events is a solo piano concert by postmodern composer Philip Glass, who played here back in 1970 as part of a celebration of the opening of the Edward Larrabee Barnes-designedbuilding. Back then, Glass was essentially a minimalist nobody: his first album wasn't released until 1973. Today, of course, he's known worldwide for his profound influences on the New Age and ambient music movements.

One of Saturday's most anticipated performances is by jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell and pedal steel maestro Greg Leisz.

Reflecting time

For an institution that prides itself on keeping the cutting edge sharp, the new Walker abounds with brand names: General Mills (entry lounge), US Bank (orientation lounge), Best Buy (media bays), Star Tribune (art lab), Cargill (another lounge) and Wolfgang Puck (restaurant, of course).

The 670-stall city-owned underground garage remains nameless, however.

Though some might blanche at all the trademark placement, frowns may turn into "Got milk?" smiles as people take closer looks at the amenities the corporate and donor cash funded.

The William and Nadine McGuire Theater is a dark jewel in the 130,000-square-foot expansion. The ebony embossed steel mesh swirls in paisley shadows on the walls, making the enveloping theater feel like a baroque Bat Cave burrowed into a light-filled Walker.

The stage is outsized for a theater seating nearly 400. The 2,800-square-foot stage has a 48-foot-high"fly space," which means productions normally too big for the seating capacity will have no trouble spreading out. Expect to hear very little amplification in this intimate setting with the 70-foot-wide stage.

A nice touch: the front row seats are actually set unobtrusively on the stage, bringing audience and performer together.

Walker PR Director Phillip Bahar said melding viewers and artists is part of the art center's mission. "This was one of our mandates. We really wanted people to feel the performance experience," he said. "So in the summer, when we present Bill T. Jones doing solo dance, you'll be on the same surface that he's dancing on, literally 10-15 feet away from him."

Bahar noted that even people in the uppermost seats at the back of the theater are only 50 feet away from the stage action.

The theater's two balconies are framed with plaster shaped into wide waves of silver gleaming like Salvador Dali-designed bumpers on an old Buick.

The metal mesh's sensual floral pattern crawls over the expansion, popping up here and there like dark ferns. It adds an old-world flourish to the new wing, a contrast with the austere Barnes building.

As you climb up and out the back of the theater, one set of polygonal windows frames the Basilica of St. Mary, just up Hennepin Avenue. Famed Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron "really fell in love with the churches on that street," Bahar said. "You'll see that all the churches appear in different windows."

It's an example, Bahar said, of the way the architects tried to fuse the old to the new and the outside to the inside.

Wolfgang Puck's "20-21" restaurant offers a spectacular view of the avenue snaking by the building's cantilevered outcropping; the eatery's perch is an architectural choice intended to intrigue passersby (luring them into galleries or the theater) and infuse those seated indoors with the exterior world's energy (sans auto emissions).

Perhaps the most striking example of this inside-outside/new-old bonding is the entrance plaza on Hennepin, where a ground-level hallway mirrors the street's grade; traffic hurtles by, viewed through two glass curtains.

While people might be inclined to "criticize" the right-angle severity of the modernist Barnes building - destined to sit in the irregular shadow of its glittery sibling - Walker Director Kathy Halbreich says the two buildings appropriately reflect their times.

In the 1970s, "people believed that there were more certainties - certainly in how a work of art was to be judged," she said. "There was a sense among critics, for example, that you could know good from bad no matter what culture you were working in.

"At this moment in time, those definitions of good and bad are much more fluid and much more complex," she said.

The Walker expansion not only reflects a new paradigm in art communities, it also serves as a giant mirror on Hennepin, Halbreich added.

"The skin of the building, which changes every moment of the day, as well as when you, the visitor, walk around it, is really more like what the world is about today."

Want to go?

Tickets for Saturday's members-only preview party are $30.

Tickets for Sunday's grand opening celebration are $5 (free to members and children 12 and under).

Call 375-7600 or visit www.walkerart.org to purchase tickets or for more information.