Halbreich will leave the Walker

Walker Art Center
The Walker Art Center expansion, completed under Kathy Halbreich's leadership, has been open for nearly two years now.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Kathy Halbreich is leaving because she thinks it's time. In her field, she says, 16 years as the head of an institution like the Walker is a long tenure. She says the Walker has always been about new works, new ideas and new values, and its director must embody that spirit.

"I hear myself occasionally saying, 'Oh we've done that, we've tried that, it won't work,' and I think that the next very lucky person who leads this institution will come in with a sense that anything is possible just like I did all these years," she says.

Kathy Halbreich
Kathy Halbreich is stepping down as director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Photo by Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center

Halbreich isn't yet sure what her future course will be. She intends to rely on friends and colleagues to help her figure out a new path. Halbreich, 58, characterizes herself as a very mission-oriented person. She points to three words that have guided the Walker's mission under her leadership: multi-disciplinary, global and diverse.

"I think during my 16 years I was able to create a reality for each of those words," she says.

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Halbreich's most visible achievements include guiding the Walker through a successful facelift, expansion and a $100 million capital campaign to pay for it. During her tenure the Walker's collection has grown from 6,100 works to 10,000. She's presided over numerous internationally acclaimed exhibitions.

But Halbreich takes equal pride in achievements that are more community-driven. Early on, she developed the Walker's Teen Arts Council, designed to make the museum more relevant to young people.

"I think Walker's program is now a template for cultural institutions across the world to invite in kids who are at a point in their life when they're challenging the status quo, which is exactly what an artist does," she says.

Halbreich is only the fourth director in the history of the Walker. She replaced Martin Friedman in 1991.

Anne D'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, thinks Halbreich took an already exceptional museum and made it even better.

"She's a great museum person, a great museum director and the Walker is one of my favorite places in the United States," D'Harnoncourt says.

D'Harnoncourt attended the opening of the newly expanded Walker in 2005 and was astounded by how it embraced so many artistic arenas in the same complex, from performance and film to new media and multimedia. She says the Walker has been a model in making modern art seem more like an adventure than a challenge.

"There's something there for everyone," she says, "and I think the Walker feels that way. It feels very welcoming for a museum that's devoted to very contemporary work."

I think that the next very lucky person who leads this institution will come in with a sense that anything is possible just like I did all these years.

And while the Walker has expanded its global reach as a museum, it's also undertaken initiatives with schools and other local organizations. Several were funded by the McKnight Foundation. Neal Cuthbert, McKnight's vice president for program, believes Kathy Halbreich deserves credit for deepening the Walker's roots in the community it serves.

"She created that expectation within the institution that this is something that the Walker should do."

Cuthbert says finding a successor for Halbreich will be a huge task for the Walker.

"It's a rigorous and challenging and ambitious institution," Cuthbert says. "I think finding somebody who can both lead it as the CEO and lead it as an artistic director is a challenge, but it's an exciting one."

Halbreich's own advice for her replacement is to realize that the Walker staff is his or her greatest resource. She says her successor's challenges will be to refuse to allow the status quo to exist, to protect the innovation and risk-taking of Walker programmers and "to make certain the support of artists is in place so that the cultural landscape of the future is as populated by great works as the past."

Halbreich plans to stay on at the Walker through November 1, while the Walker conducts an international search for a new director, which is already underway.