The Walker Art Center’s sculpture park turns over a new leaf

The Walker Art Center’s sculpture park turns over a new leaf

Following a $10 million expansion and the removal of one controversial work of art, an iconic sculpture park in Minneapolis reopens to the community.

Much has been said about Los Angeles artist Sam Durant’s large-scale sculpture Scaffold, which collages the architecture of seven hangings carried out by the US government, ranging from the gallows of abolitionist John Brown to Saddam Hussein and the 38 Dakota Sioux whom President Lincoln ordered to be hung in 1962 in Mankato, Minnesota. Debuted at Documenta in Kassel in 2012, Scaffold was read as a condemnation of state-sanctioned execution. But five years later, in the Walker Art Center’s newly expanded Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, it was a barbed reminder of a deep and brutal trauma.

Referring to another work in the park, Katharina Fritsch’s brilliant-blue rooster and its move from Trafalgar Square to American poultry country, Walker Art Center executive director Olga Viso said, ‘When you change the context of the work in the local community it brings these interesting local associations.’ Only days later, Dakota elders associating Durant’s piece with genocide called for its incineration near Fort Snelling, the site where the executed had been interred.

Viso and Durant were quick to apologise and comply, handing the full intellectual property rights to Scaffold over to the tribe. The museum delayed the scheduled 3 June completion of the sculpture park’s $10m year-long renovation, so that it could be dismantled and removed.

Hahn/Cock, by Katharina Fritsch, 2010-13. Photography: Gene Pittman. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

‘I take full responsibility for the missteps that have been made here,’ Viso told the StarTribune, describing these events as a ‘very painful’ public lesson. The controversy surrounding the piece unravels the very vision behind the sculpture park’s renovation, one of greater inclusivity, social awareness, and public engagement through design.

When the park first opened in 1988, the garden subscribed to a 20th-century idea of stewarding art within a fortress, closing itself off in protective rows of pines and bermed walls. The expansion was carried out for the past year by an extensive team that included landscape architects Tom Oslund and Petra Blaisse, and architect Julie Snow, who took the walls down, as well as adding more points of entry, and five new acres.

Scaffold was one of 18 new pieces that brought the garden’s artworks into the 21st century, the first curatorial update since its inception. Works like Theaster Gates’ Black Vessel for a Saint and Nairy Baghramian’s Privileged Points breathe new diversity and critical viewpoints into the public space, while Fritsch’s absurd and commanding Hahn/Cock stands up is to Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s 1985 Spoonbridge and Cherry, the longtime centrepiece of the garden. Raising environmental sustainability and lowering its footprint, the Walker also installed a greywater system to feed the fountain below the iconic sculpture and transformed the garden’s conservatory into an open-air pavilion, removing the need to keep its interior at 75 degrees year-round.

As of now, the pieces of Durant’s sculpture are being stored by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board as the Dakota elders reconsider their initial plans to burn it. The garden held its ribbon-cutting ceremony on 10 June, with a freshly repainted cherry and a new path that leads visitors past a James Turrell Skyspace up to the top of Wurtele Upper Garden, newly contoured by Dutch landscape architect Blaisse and providing an impeccable vista. It’s emblematic of a museum that, despite its stumbles, recognises the importance of new points of view.

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