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To some observers, the Walker Art Center views itself as a renowned international institution that just happens to be in Minnesota.

Certainly, its relationships with local artists have been strained at times, but the Walker's new leadership is taking steps to remedy that.

In December, it trumpeted the recent addition to its permanent collection of 39 works by Minnesota artists, including Ta-coumba T. Aiken, Julie Buffalohead, Seitu Jones, Rowan Pope and Dyani White Hawk.

In January, it relaunched the online platform Mn Artists, a joint initiative with the Mc­Knight Foundation that supports Minnesota's arts community through writing and relationship building.

And in response to the racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd, the Walker diverted $120,000 from its acquisitions fund to 10 Twin Cities arts groups led by people of color, who were free to use the money as they wished.

The Walker "is part of an international ecosystem but also a local arts ecosystem," said executive director Mary Ceruti, who took over two years ago. "I think a big part of our role ... is to be the nexus between the two."

The center has waded through several challenging situations with the community in recent years. Protests in 2017 over L.A.-based artist Sam Durant's "Scaffold," a sculpture modeled partly on the gallows where 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato in 1864, brought harsh criticism of the Walker for its apparent lack of sensitivity to local concerns — in this case the traumatic history of Minnesota's Indigenous people.

Although the Walker has previously worked with local artists on high-profile acquisitions, there's much more to be done, they say.

Previous director Olga Viso commissioned Twin Cities artists Aiken and Jones to create "Shadows at the Crossroads," a series of seven artworks that the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden unveiled in 2019 after the dismantling of "Scaffold." These flat sculptures, scattered along the pathways weaving through the garden, represent various figures who made a mark on Minnesota history.

Twin Cities artist Pao Houa Her believes the Walker's recommitment to local artists, and particularly the Hmong community, feels like a step in the right direction. The center acquired a set of photos by Her drawing connections between life in Laos and St. Paul. She did question why it took the Walker so long to add a major work by Jones.

"I think they've definitely made real steps to engage with the communities that they serve," she said. "The steady incline has been wonderful."

Jones, whose long community-based practice resulted in his winning the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award in 2017, feels that the Walker continues to make some of the same mistakes it did 30 years ago, but that this time things could change.

"This is just kind of the Walker dipping its toe into the water," said Jones. "It really has to dive in deep … go off the deep end on it and really rethink what a contemporary art center is supposed to do.

"We have this grand opportunity during the pandemic, during this racial reckoning, to rethink our institutions ... to look at these art institutions and start to kind of right that ship. It takes a lot to turn those big-ass boats, but just to start to turn it."

Looking ahead

The Walker's distribution of funds to artists of color suggests another way the institution is trying to connect in smaller but significant ways.

Artist Cadex Herrera, best known for his work on the now-iconic George Floyd mural at 38th Street & Chicago Avenue, received $5,000 through the Minneapolis organization CLUES (Communidades Latinos Unidos en Servicio). He said the money came at the perfect time.

"What an honor and amazing help," said Herrera, whose work centers on social justice initiatives and visibility for people of color, immigrant and marginalized communities. He used part of it to help family members in Belize, who he said received zero relief from the government during these difficult pandemic times, and the rest of it for art supplies and shipping costs.

At the same time, receiving funds from an institution brought up feelings for him, especially after the "Scaffold" controversy.

"It's hard for folks who are people of color, immigrants. ... It's a tough environment to feel welcome," he said. "It feels like those spaces are not meant for us and you have to start with the art you're putting up on the wall."

Namir Fearce, an interdisciplinary artist and filmmaker from north Minneapolis, received a $5,000 grant through Juxtaposition Arts, where he came up as an artist. He'll use the money for his current film, "In This Wicked Womb."

"It would be silly to say it's some kind of radical change, but there is an interest, and where there is an interest there can be change," Fearce said.

For longtime Twin Cities arts organizations, the effort made a difference but there's still more work to be done.

"It's a minuscule percentage of the Walker's budget, but for artists, money with no strings attached is incredibly meaningful," said Lana Barkawi, executive director of the Arab-American arts organization Mizna. "It's a small step toward repairing harm that has been done over the years when institutions take from the local BIPOC arts ecosystem and don't give back."

@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437