Olga Viso to Step Down as Director of the Walker Art Center After a Major Renovation—and a Major Controversy

Her tenure saw a major fundraising campaign and renovation as well as staff defections.

Olga Viso. Courtesy Walker Art Center.

The Walker Art Center’s director Olga Viso plans to step down from her post at the end of the year after a decade at the helm of the Minneapolis institution. This summer, she unveiled an overhaul of the Walker Art Center’s popular sculpture garden and recently completed a $75 million fundraising campaign.

In a statement announcing her departure, the museum said that “the board and Viso agreed that now is an ideal time for a transition.”

Museum directors often depart after completing major renovations. But Viso’s announcement also comes a few months after a major controversy over Scaffold, a sculpture by Sam Durant destined for the expanded sculpture garden, which offended the local Native American community because of its inclusion of gallows meant to resemble those used to execute 38 Dakota Indians in 1862. (Viso, Durant, and the museum ultimately decided to turn the sculpture over to the Dakota elders, who ceremonially buried it.) The museum also faced scrutiny over its hosting of an exhibition of work by Jimmie Durham, whose claims of Cherokee ancestry are hotly contested.

Sam Durant, Scaffold. Courtesy of the artist, Blum & Poe, Paula Cooper Gallery, Praz-Delavallade and Sadie Coles HQ. Photo by Rosa Maria Ruehling.

Sam Durant, Scaffold. Courtesy of the artist, Blum & Poe, Paula Cooper Gallery, Praz-Delavallade and Sadie Coles HQ. Photo by Rosa Maria Ruehling.

The Walker suffered an earlier high-profile departure in January, when artistic director Fionn Meade left his post after less than two years, citing “personal reasons.” He was one of some two dozen staff to leave the institution over the last year, the New York Times reported in September. At the time, some employees described the Walker’s work environment as demanding and inflexible.

In an interview today, Meade told the Times that Viso’s legacy will ultimately be tied to the sculpture garden’s expansion. “It’s a visionary success and I admire her for it,” he said. “It came at a cost. That cost is still happening. And the institution will take a long time to recover.”

The board plans to form a search committee to hire Viso’s replacement. In the meantime, rather than appointing a single interim director, the museum has named a group of four to serve in the “office of the executive director”: Christopher Stevens, chief advancement officer; Mary Polta, chief financial officer; Siri Engberg, senior curator and director of exhibitions management; and Rishi Donat, director of human resources.

“The Walker Board is focused on fully activating the new campus, proceeding as a global artistic leader, continuing our commitments to be a more inclusive organization, and being responsive to community perspectives and political realities of this time,” the museum’s board president Monica Nassif said in a statement.

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center/Gene Pittman.

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center/Gene Pittman.

During Viso’s 10-year tenure, the Walker has hosted major exhibitions including “Adios Utopia,” one of the most comprehensive presentations of Cuban art in the US in decades (on view now), the acclaimed Merce Cunningham survey earlier this year, and “International Pop,” an influential survey of Pop art from around the world.

During this time, the museum also added some 5,000 works to its collection, with particular attention paid to local artists, women, and people of color. The Walker has added works by Marlene Dumas, Jimmie Durham, Ana Mendieta, Lee Ufan, and Jack Whitten, among others, during Viso’s tenure.

Before her arrival at the Walker, Viso served as director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC.

“Completing the vision for the campus that began in 2005 with the Walker’s Herzog and DeMeuron addition has been an absolute highlight,” Viso said in a statement. “I am immensely proud of what we—the Walker’s talented and ambitious staff and the generous community of donors who stepped up boldly—have accomplished together.”


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