Olga Viso ’87

Orchestrating the Arts

By Lorrie Kyle Ramey ’70

Olga Viso

Olga Viso’s career since her graduation from Rollins in 1987 might be summed up by three e’s: enthusiasm, excellence, and exhibitions.

On a trajectory that took her from an internship at Atlanta’s High Museum while earning a master’s degree in art history at Emory University to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, and then to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (part of the Smithsonian Institution family of museums in Washington, D.C.), Viso rose from an assistant curator to director of the Hirshhorn in only a decade.

In 2008, she was named director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Proclaimed by Newsweek to be “possibly America’s best contemporary-art museum,” the Walker is one of the world’s few interdisciplinary centers, featuring visual, performing, and media arts. Attendance is comparable to that of the Hirshhorn, making the Walker one of the five most-visited museums in the U.S.

As the Walker’s new director, Viso faced some challenges. At the top of the list: long-term sustainability. “Art institutions need to be reinvented,” she said. In pursuit of that fresh model, she is exploring different kinds of creative collaboration and, as a member of the board of the American Association of Museum Directors, leading the campaign to redefine the role of museums in the 21st century.

Now in her fourth year, the former studio art major and business minor can focus more time on the artistic, rather than the administrative side of the Walker. She was recently able to exercise her curatorial expertise with a retrospective of painter Guillermo Kuitca, entitled Everything. While at the Hirshhorn, Viso organized highly acclaimed exhibitions of works by performance artist Ana Mendieta and sculptor Juan Muñoz, contributing to the exhibition catalogues in the process. She is co-curating a survey exhibition on sculptor Jim Hodges, in conjunction with the Dallas Museum of Art, which will debut in 2013.

Viso is drawn to less-represented artists she believes deserve reconsideration, and her exhibitions share a common thread: removing (or, in her words, “breaking”) the frame so the viewer isn’t constrained by expectation or preconception. Under her direction, the Walker is similarly erasing the traditional lines between types of media. “Artists are blurring and shifting the boundaries,” she explained, “and we’re shifting with them, developing fluid, collaborative systems so we can facilitate their creativity.”

She credits Rollins with equipping her with the analytical skills to assess and be responsive to artistic evolution and the changing aspects of culture. Viso’s career at Rollins could also be summed up by three e’s: encouragement, experience, and exploration. She recounted being encouraged to cultivate her interests by a variety of Rollins faculty and administrators, including Associate Professor Steve Neilson, whose arts management courses introduced her to the field; Richard Colvin ’80, then curator of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum; President Thaddeus Seymour ’82HAL ’90H, who permitted Viso to mount exhibitions in the College’s new Olin Library; and Associate Professor Roy Starling, whose seminar on poet-artist William Blake introduced her to cross-fertilization of disciplines.

As one of the first tutors in the Writing Center (she signed on when she learned she would have 24-hour access to a computer), Viso polished her own writing while assisting other students. Conducting campus tours developed her public speaking, and interaction with international students expanded her global perspective. All critical for her multiple roles as curator, scholar, and manager, which Viso likens to an orchestra conductor.

Asked for her advice to aspiring curators, she recommends immersion in art, but counsels maintaining a broad, cross-disciplinary perspective, incorporating literature, philosophy, and the arts. Most important: “Curiosity should lead your path.”

Clearly, Olga Viso follows her own advice.