Design 4-23-2008

POV: A Chat with Walker Art Center’s Director, Olga Viso editor Susannah Schouweiler visits with WAC Director Olga Viso about the joys of working with living artists, the populist power of the public museum, and the rejuvenative benefits of CSI reruns.


WHEN YOU SEE THE NEW DIRECTOR OF THE WALKER ART CENTER ACROSS THE ROOM, it’s easy to be intimidated. Statuesque and regal, she’s also armed with impeccable arts cred, having honed her curatorial and administrative chops at an impressive array of institutions across the county (most recently the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in D.C.) before joining the Walker’s team in January of this year. But once you’ve been siting down with Viso for just a few minutes, between her graciousness and infectious passion for her work (and after discovering a shared enthusiasm for CSI reruns), you’ll be surprised how quickly you forget to be nervous.

Her zeal for artists themselves is immediately evident. In fact, like many people working in arts administration, Viso got her start making art herself. “But, at a certain point,” she says, “I realized my gift lay more in writing about art than in making it.” Even so, “that experience gave me valuable perspective on the creative process and on the way artists work. I think spending some time at it myself it has enabled me to bring a greater depth of passion to my work, whether it’s in my writing or working with artists.”

She’s currently finishing a book collecting previously unpublished works-in-progress by the late Ana Mendieta, a provocative Cuban-American conceptual/performance artist around whose work Viso curated an influential exhibition a few years ago. “It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to do this—I’m able to follow up on the research I did putting that show together four years ago–I’m able to curate the image selections and get deeply involved with the layout and sequence of the visual pieces. It’s been wonderful.”

“When you make the move from curatorial work into administration,” she observes a bit ruefully, “while you work closely to build the collections, you don’t get to organize many shows any more. So it’s wonderful to have this outlet. This kind of writing—this is something I need to do for myself.” On the other hand, she says, there are satisfactions to taking on the broader focus of a leadership role that compensate for any loss in curatorial creativity. “In this position, I’m sort of like an orchestra conductor, and it’s wonderful to get a big-picture view of how the whole institution works. I can apply a little pressure over here, tug on a string here, ask some questions over there to get a ball rolling–after some time, you can really see momentum develop. That’s highly creative, really gratifying work in its own right. I love putting people’s various talents together, allowing them to generate ideas together, bounce things off of each other—you can get so much more done this way than one person could accomplish alone.”

“I grew up in Melbourne, a small town in Florida, and I had a wonderful childhood, but there wasn’t a lot of culture going on there. When I was a eleven years old, we went on a school field trip to the local art and science museum. I remember that in this large room, they had an impressive exhibit of medieval instruments, which looked incredibly old and mysterious to me. Then they shuttled all of us into an adjacent room where there were musicians who were playing on those old instruments, describing them to us, showing us how they worked. I was just blown away—absolutely fascinated. Seeing them in use just made the history of those objects come alive.”

Viso explains that what was most powerful for her about the experience wasn’t so much the collection of instruments itself, but that those objects were publicly accessible—that beautiful, rare pieces of human history and art would be collected together in one place and brought out for the express purpose of sharing them with the public. “So, even though I started out my professional life doing other things—making art in college as well as working for a few years afterward in marketing and graphic design (which I found that I enjoyed)—I always knew I wanted to find a way to work in a museum somehow. I don’t know…maybe it really did go all the way back to that experience in my hometown museum when I was eleven years old. I love what institutions like this can do and what they can bring to people.”

She traveled some after undergraduate school and took a few years to work in business—but her determination to pursue a career in museum work grew. After doing some research, it became clear to her that she’d need a graduate degree to do the kind of work she found herself most interested in. So, she attended Emory University studying Art History, and landed a position working in the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, working in the director’s office. After several years at the High, she returned to Florida, to the Norton Museum of Art, where she was one of the institution’s first curators of contemporary art. She traveled the world seeing exhibitions, visited with local Miami artists, and loved all of it. She was hooked.

“I’ve always known I wanted to work with living artists, I felt a natural affinity with contemporary art–I love the dialogue with artists; I love having to look and re-look at the work again and again to understand it,” she enthuses. “With contemporary art you have to reassess what you’re seeing constantly—it requires you to always shift your perspective—and the kinds of questions artists ask always push ahead. I want to be part of that dialogue.”

According to Viso, part of the advantage of working with living artists is that you’re “able to put artists forward in the program, to share their viewpoints with the public.” She explains, “I think bringing the artist directly into the exhibition space and programming makes difficult work more accessible; people are much more open to hearing from an artist than an academic.” In addition to creating new exhibitions, she’s been an innovator in developing programming that breathes new life and public interest into ways of re-presenting works in a museum’s permanent collection. “At the Hirshhorn,” she says, “we developed a series to invite young artists to come in and curate exhibitions around the pieces in our collection (Ways of Seeing). Their juxtapositions of pieces, from a variety of time periods and artistic styles, surprised and delighted me—and it enabled all of us to see those pieces in the permanent collection with new eyes. I would love to do something like that again.”

“I live in a neighborhood [the Lowry Hill area of Minneapolis] that’s full of artists and little galleries,” she says. “The arts are so vital here, and it’s important to me to be out in that energy, to be part of my community.” As we talk about how she’s settling in at the Walker, I ask about her aspirations for continuing to build strong connections between the Walker and the artist community here in Minnesota. She says she’s thrilled by the interdisciplinary verve of the Walker’s exhibitions and programming. “This institution is poised like no other in the country to energize a sort of collaborative, artistic dialogue between disciplines. It’s wonderful that the staff welcomes cooperation and collaboration, there’s a willingness to invite one another in to mix it up a little bit. It’s very exciting and, in that respect, the Walker is on the forefront, its programs are a model for institutions across the country.”

It’s ironic, with all the Walker’s forward-thinking interdisciplinary programming and landmark exhibition creation in recent years, that the stories about the institution’s homegrown arts endeavors have been so tough to get out. “We just need to tell our stories better,” she says.

“There seems to be a persistent belief that the Walker ‘doesn’t do much for local artists.'” She notes, “Maybe this is something faced by every arts institution in its own hometown. Of course, unless you’re showing their work, it’s natural that artists feel like an institution isn’t doing enough to support them.” But, she goes on, “as I became familiar with the programming that the Walker’s been doing for years, I just don’t see where that perception is coming from. To me, it’s so obvious, the Walker is tremendously rooted in its community— from ongoing outreach for children and families to exhibitions of local artists and dancers; there are the web resources of and ArtsConnectED, film screenings, educational workshops …it’s just incredible.”

She shrugs, “In comparison to similar institutions across the country, the Walker’s emphasis on local programming and support for community artists is exceptional.” “But,” she admits, “it’s a large place and there’s a lot going on (and I’m getting the feeling that the curators and staff who work here have been shy about taking credit for some of these fantastic programs). We just need to communicate to the community more effectively about these achievements. We need to celebrate these model programs (that the public often doesn’t realize are actually Walker-based).”

She reiterates, “There are already incredible programs the Walker offers, and in many cases has offered for years and years, that are rooted in this community. We just need to find a way to tell those stories better so that people are aware of all that we’re doing.”

Susannah Schouweiler

Susannah Schouweiler is a writer, editor, and museum wonk. For 12 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of Mn Artists at the Walker Art Center and responsible for publication of original arts writing on the homepage, blog, and social media assets. Back in the day, she served as Editor of Ruminator magazine, a nationally distributed art and lit mag. She has written on the arts for a number of regional and national outlets, including Hyperallergic, Rain Taxi Review of Books, MinnPost, The Growler, …   read more