Walker Art Center
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Musings on Globalism and Institutional Change


KH: So what new strategies did you have to put in place to locate those curators?

VND: It comes down to time, money, and resources. If you make that commitment, you have to accept that it's going to be more complicated. It means that each project has to be initiated much earlier because it requires a longer gestation period. It means developing long-term partnerships with some of the curators so the work can continue to develop over time.

I'll use the example of our contemporary-art effort because, in a way, it's parallel to the Walker's global initiative. I'll never forget my introduction to the Galleries' academic advisory committee, the membership of which was in place long before I came to the Asia Society. The first thing we did was to rotate its membership because I felt a multiplicity of voices was necessary; but it meant changing the original structure in order to achieve that. I also remember the head of the committee--Sherman Lee, who was my mentor at the Cleveland Museum of Art--saying, "I understand you want to pursue contemporary art, but where are you going find the curatorial expertise? There are no experts." I said to him, "The fact that we don't know them doesn't mean they don't exist--but I take your point, which is that I first must find them." So before we created a program, I set out to find people in the field, especially in each region, who were doing the work. If you remember, you were part of that very first meeting. It took us a couple of years before we could actually identify the best thinkers because, especially in contemporary Asian art, it was still a relatively nascent field, even in Asia itself. Sherman asked an important question because it momentarily stopped me in my tracks, until I recognized that without giving it time I couldn't get there and neither could the institution. I can tell you that it has taken a full decade to get to a point where it is now an established part of the institutional practice to include contemporary art by Asian and Asian-American artists in what we do. Nobody questions it now.

KH: Have you noticed that your audience has changed as the programs have changed? VND: Absolutely. KH: How would you describe that?

VND: I would say that we have a younger and larger Asian-American audience today, not just in the visual arts but in the performing arts and other programs we do. It has permeated throughout the institution. Even if, in numbers, the contemporary audience is still smaller than our traditional audience, the effort is truly worthwhile.

You also have initiated a lot of changes at your institution. When you begin to contemplate these new programs, do you feel pressure to look out over a long horizon and imagine what the institution will be like ten years from now? With the Walker's global initiative, for example, what would it need to look like in a decade for it to be successful?

KH: When we began the initiative, I don't think I had any tangible idea of what it would feel like or how the texture of the institution might change. It was easier, perhaps, to think about it in quasi-numerical terms, for example, increasing the number of works in our collection from non-Western sources. Ideally, the composition of our curatorial staff will change some. Ideally, the educators who are helping us interpret the programs to an increasingly diverse local community will change some. I guess I realized that it would undermine certain traditional notions of expertise, but I don't think I articulated that. I might have put it in the form of a question. In other words, I knew that, institutionally, we couldn't become the final arbiters--or maybe we were the final arbiters but needed to draw information from our colleagues and experts along the way in order to develop additional criteria to make those final judgments. That was why we put this advisory committee together and that's why part of the role of our advisors is to critique our own programs. Philippe's exhibition Let's Entertain[1] was well under way by the time we began the meetings, and the criticism was pretty severe. But it was extremely

1 Let's Entertain, curated by Philippe Vergne, was presented at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, February 12-April 30, 2000, and traveled through 2001 to Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon; Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; and Miami Art Museum, Miami, Florida.