Art Works Blog

(National Council of) Art Talk with Olga Viso

Although it was an exhibit on medieval instruments that first introduced Olga Viso to the power of the arts, her career has since leaped a few centuries beyond this early interest. Since 2008, she has served as executive director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, one of the country’s most prominent contemporary art museums. During her tenure, the Walker has sought to fuel artistic dialogue across mediums, as well as actively engage the community both within museum walls and beyond. Previously, she was director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in DC, and has also worked at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Now, she will bring her visionary, cross-disciplinary artistic approach to the National Council on the Arts. We had a chance to catch up with her by e-mail in anticipation of her official swearing-in later this week.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience with or engagement with the arts?

OLGA VISO: My earliest engagement was as a maker. According to my mother, I would draw people’s portraits on coffeehouse napkins at restaurants and give them away. My parents encouraged my artistic talents and I took private art classes throughout my childhood. It was on a school field trip at age 11 to my local art museum, however, that I had my first unforgettable experience with art. It was an exhibition of medieval musical instruments, which seemed dull and inanimate, until my class was escorted into an adjacent classroom to hear the instruments performed by musicians in costumes of the period. It was unforgettable and I knew then I would find my home in the arts and in museums from that point on. I now have the privilege of leading an art center that brings together the visual, performing, and moving image arts in the powerful way I will never forget experiencing as a child.

NEA: How do you define inspiration? What role does it play in your own creative practice? 

VISO: Inspiration is a powerful motivating influencer: an experience that offers possibility and breakthrough thinking. This is what I believe art can do in our society. It can provoke new thinking and perspective and can often invite us to experience the world with a new lens that taps into our own creative agency. I have a board member at the Walker Art Center who mentors entrepreneurs starting new businesses. She encourages her mentees to join an institution like the Walker that can expose them to new ways of thinking and making. She believes that reframing one’s worldview is essential to being a successful businessperson and contributing citizen in society.

NEA: What do you hope to accomplish during your time on the National Council on the Arts?

VISO: I hope to be a strong and vocal advocate for the importance of arts and artists in our society. Art is not a luxury but essential to the moral and creative fabric of our society. Our cultural production as a nation postulates and defines who we are as people and what is important to us as contributors to global culture.

NEA: In the words of the New York Times, you’re known for “championing experimental art and performance pieces and introducing Americans to artists and genres from other countries.” As a museum director, how do you know which risks are worth taking?

VISO: As the director of an art center that includes a museum, a performing arts theater, and a cinema, I work with a team of talented curators who are experts in their respective fields. They each spend a great deal of time with artists in their studios and workspaces, seeing artworks in development and production. We support creative voices around the world that we feel stretch conventions in artistic practice, push the bounds of the various media they explore, and create new artistic expressions that advance culture.

NEA: What is the best museum exhibition that you’ve seen recently?

VISO: The recent survey exhibition of the contemporary French artist Philippe Parenno, which was at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris last fall, is one of the most memorable exhibitions I have seen in years. It redefines what an exhibition that surveys the career of a single artist can and should be, and radically questions the voice and authority of the institution in fascinating ways that often put the audience in the driver’s seat as a creative partner with the artist.

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