What Can We (Not) Learn From Walker Arts Center's Ambitious Redesign?

Sometimes titles can be deceiving. For example, when I stumbled across "Walker Arts Center Goes Green in $75 Million Project," two questions immediately popped into my head.

One was, "Why haven't I read more about arts organizations 'going green' in terms of their physical spaces?" And secondly, "Do arts organizations that 'go green' have a better shot of nabbing philanthropic dollars than those that don't?"

As it turns out, the news out of Minnesota doesn't seem to have any bearing on my two questions. Indeed, the Walker Arts Center is "going green," but in a literal sense. With help from Amsterdam-based landscaping pros Inside Outside, the center will be enveloped in groves of trees and acres of new grass. This isn't to say the new building won't be environmentally friendly. However, from what I could discern, the "green" element—as in, "We're-reducing-our-carbon-footprint-to-zero"—wasn't front and center.

And so the question is, "When will foundations start paying arts organizations to retrofit their buildings and make them more environmentally friendly?" The answer lies in the classic "robbing Peter to pay Paul" dilemma. Arts funding is a finite resource. Most organizations need money to address the big challenges—programming, audience engagement, and long-term financial sustainability. Diverting funding toward building retrofits, while making nice headlines, will inevitably drain money from other pressing issues.

All of this could change, of course. All it takes is one foundation to take the lead.

Until then, we'll remain contented with stories like the one out of Minneapolis. The Walker Art Center's $75 million project already has $60 million in hand thanks to $10 million in public money and $20 million from Minneapolis philanthropists Margaret and Angus Wurtele, Walker board members for more than 40 years. Other board members and Walker supporters chipped in an additional $29.8 million. The remaining $15.2 million will be raised from private sources as the project unfolds.

Beyond the gorgeous design, what makes this project most compelling is its goal of positioning the center as an "anchor and gateway" to the city. It's something we've seen before—most recently in Charlotte, North Carolina—and judging from the center's impressive financial windfall thus far, the tactic seems to be working.