Story by JENNA ROSS and RO­HAN PRE­STON • Photo by AARON LAVINSKY • Star Tri­bune staff

Star Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - Staff writer Ali­cia Eler con­trib­uted to this re­port. Jenna.Ross@star­tri­bune.com 612-673-7168 • Twit­ter: @ByJenna Ro­han.Pre­ston@star­tri­bune.com 612-673-4390 • @ro­han­pre­ston

Olga Viso is step­ping down as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Walker Art Cen­ter af­ter a chal­leng­ing year marked by the de­but of a col­or­ful new cam­pus and sear­ing protests over a con­tro­ver­sial sculp­ture.

In a sur­prise an­nounce­ment Tues­day, the Walker said Viso, who has led the in­ter­na­tion­ally known cen­ter since 2008, will leave by year end.

Four sources close to the board char­ac­ter­ized her res­ig­na­tion as the end re­sult of a month­s­long process fu­eled by un­usu­ally high turnover among Walker staff and demon­stra­tions against the “Scaf­fold” sculp­ture that de­layed the gala open­ing of the Min­neapo­lis Sculp­ture Gar­den last spring.

The de­par­ture is “Olga’s de­ci­sion,” said Walker spokes­woman Rachel Joyce, but the board is “in strong agree­ment that the tim­ing is right. Olga cer­tainly feels that way.”

The June re­open­ing of the ex­panded Olga Viso, who re­signed Tues­day, came to the Walker as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor in 2008.

gar­den, paired with a $75 mil­lion cap­i­tal and en­dow­ment cam­paign, was sup­posed to be Viso’s shin­ing mo­ment. In­stead, it be­came the fo­cus of anger from the Amer­i­can In­dian com­mu­nity, with some call­ing for her res­ig­na­tion over “Scaf­fold,” a sculp­ture mod­eled partly on the gal­lows used to hang 38 Amer­i­can In­di­ans in Mankato af­ter the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Viso apol­o­gized, met with Dakota elders and agreed to the dis­man­tling of the work. The Walker board then or­dered an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the in­ter­nal process around “Scaf­fold”; re­sults of that re­view have not been dis­closed.

“We are grate­ful for Olga’s lead­er­ship and cel­e­brate her sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the Walker Art Cen­ter dur­ing the past 10 years,” Walker board Pres­i­dent Mon­ica Nas­sif said in a state­ment Tues­day. “She led the or­ga­ni­za­tion through a ma­jor cap­i­tal cam­paign to fund the vi­sion and redesign of our en­tire cam­pus, in­clud­ing the new Min­neapo­lis Sculp­ture Gar­den.”

Nas­sif and Viso did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment Tues­day.

The Walker said its board will form a search com­mit­tee to hire a new di­rec­tor. Viso’s salary was $496,355 in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the Walker’s most re­cent pub­lic tax fil­ing.

In the in­terim, the cen­ter will be led by four se­nior staffers as a col­lec­tive “chief ex­ec­u­tive” — chief ad­vance­ment of­fi­cer Christo­pher Stevens, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer Mary Polta, se­nior cu­ra­tor Siri Eng­berg and hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor Rishi Do­nat.

In a state­ment, Viso said: “It has been a priv­i­lege to lead this ven­er­a­ble con­tem­po­rary arts in­sti­tu­tion the last 10 years and to sup­port the work of some of the most com­pelling and ad­ven­tur­ous in­ter­na­tional artists work­ing today.”

“Com­plet­ing the vi­sion for the cam­pus that be­gan in 2005 with the Walker’s Her­zog & de Meu­ron ad­di­tion has been an ab­so­lute high­light. 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.”

Ten­sions with board

Board mem­bers could not com­ment on Tues­day’s an­nounce­ment be­cause they have a nondis­clo­sure agree­ment with Viso, ac­cord­ing to sources close to the 44-mem­ber board.

One char­ac­ter­ized the split as “an am­i­ca­ble di­vorce.” They pointed to long-sim­mer­ing ten­sion be­tween Viso and the board over what some de­scribe as her tough and de­mand­ing man­age­ment style, which con­trib­uted to the de­par­ture of sev­eral se­nior lead­ers.

At the same time, they said, the board cred­ited Viso for her vi­sion — in­clud­ing the new Walker cam­pus, with a much-praised entrance and res­tau­rant fac­ing the Sculp­ture Gar­den — along with the suc­cess­ful cap­i­tal cam­paign and her re­cov­ery from “Scaf­fold.”

Staff rum­blings first be­came pub­lic two years ago, fol­low­ing the res­ig­na­tions of seven top cu­ra­tors and depart­ment heads. More ques­tions were raised last Jan­uary when Fionn Meade, who in 2015 was el­e­vated to the new post of artis­tic di­rec­tor, re­signed abruptly for undis­closed per­sonal rea­sons.

In a re­cent in­ter­view, Meade pre­dicted that “Olga’s legacy will be tied to the suc­cess of the Sculp­ture Gar­den and the Walker cam­pus,” which he called “a vi­sion­ary suc­cess and I ad­mire her for it.”

But, he said, “it came at a cost” — burnout and low morale that led to the de­par­ture of more than two dozen staff mem­bers since last De­cem­ber. Meade faulted Viso for fail­ing to hire suf­fi­cient staff to com­plete the cam­pus project while main­tain­ing an am­bi­tious ex­hi­bi­tion sched­ule.

“That cost is still hap­pen­ing,” he said. “And the in­sti­tu­tion, in terms of staff, will take a long time to re­cover.”

Her fi­nal ‘pas­sion project’

Viso spent last week­end cel­e­brat­ing with Cuban artists and Walker staff and sup­port­ers gath­ered for the open­ing of “Adiós Utopia,” an ex­hibit that the Walker di­rec­tor — her­self the Florida-born daugh­ter of Cuban émi­grés — de­scribed as a “pas­sion project.”

Smil­ing as she worked the crowd at Fri­day’s open­ing party, she gave no in­di­ca­tion that the show of Cuban art was, in essence, her swan song.

Be­fore com­ing to the Walker, Viso was di­rec­tor of the Hir­sh­horn Mu­seum and Sculp­ture Gar­den in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where she was praised by the Wash­ing­ton Post for her “com­mit­ment to ex­per­i­men­tal, even dif­fi­cult” art.

In ret­ro­spect, that com­mit­ment led to her mis­step with “Scaf­fold,” the work by Los An­ge­les-based artist Sam Du­rant that she spot­ted at an event in Ger­many in 2012 and cham­pi­oned as one of 18 new works for the sculp­ture gar­den.

“I saw a po­tent artis­tic state­ment about the ethics of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment,” she said in an open let­ter last spring that touched off the pub­lic de­bate. “Most im­por­tantly, I rec­og­nized its ca­pac­ity to ad­dress the buried his­to­ries of vi­o­lence in this coun­try, in par­tic­u­lar rais­ing needed aware­ness among white au­di­ences.”

Re­flect­ing on the episode re­cently, Viso said she in­tended the piece to re­veal a his­tory too few Min­nesotans know, and didn’t an­tic­i­pate the trauma it would trig­ger.

“I un­der­stand what it means to be mis­rep­re­sented, to be mis­un­der­stood,” she said. “I’m some­one who’s deeply com­mit­ted to re­spect­ing cul­ture … and in­sti­tu­tion­ally, the Walker is as well. So that we would mis­step is even more painful. It’s not who we are.”

Tues­day’s state­ment noted that the Walker’s board be­came sig­nif­i­cantly more di­verse dur­ing her ten­ure. Cur­rently, 20 per­cent of its mem­bers are peo­ple of color, com­pared with 5 per­cent in 2008.

Board chair Nas­sif told the Star Tri­bune last month that the Walker’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion was prompted by the me­di­a­tion process that led to the dis­man­tling of “Scaf­fold.” The cen­ter’s lead­ers, she said, “agreed to ex­am­ine our in­sti­tu­tional struc­tures and poli­cies and work to make struc­tural change.”

While the re­port, by Min­neapo­lis firm Ni­lan John­son Lewis, has not been made pub­lic, Nas­sif said the board al­ready had drawn one con­clu­sion: “With works go­ing into pub­lic spa­ces … we need to add an­other level of con­sid­er­a­tion.”

AARON LAVINSKY • aaron.lavinsky@star­tri­bune.com

Walker Art Cen­ter Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Olga Viso spoke about the up­com­ing “Adiós Utopia” Cuban art ex­hi­bi­tion at the Walker.

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