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Walker Art Center lands $10 million gift

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Walker Art Center lands $10 million gift

Rohan Preston, Star Tribune

Published February 20, 2004WALK20

In a gift that the Walker Art Center described as "transformational," its $1.5 million-a-year performing-arts program has received $10 million from William and Nadine McGuire of Wayzata.

The deep-pocketed McGuires recently have emerged as front-runners -- and fresh faces -- in a longstanding philanthropic tradition that has made the Twin Cities an arts center more varied and vibrant than many larger cities.

The McGuires' burst of generosity just since July has left observers giddy: $10 million to the University of Minnesota, $10 million to the Guthrie Theater and $1 million to the Children's Theatre Company. Other recent Twin Cities giving by the McGuires and their family foundation, for which details were not revealed, bring their total giving to more than $40 million, William McGuire said Thursday.

"We have been welcomed in this community with tremendous love, warmth and generosity," Nadine McGuire said Thursday. "Others show their appreciation, too. This is our way to show that we value the institutions that make our community such a great place to live and raise a family."

Success story

William McGuire, a physician, has led what is now UnitedHealth Group for 15 years, building it into the nation's largest provider of health-care management services. When he assumed leadership of the precursor company in 1989, annual revenues were $400 million. In 2003, UnitedHealth Group, based in Minnetonka, earned $810 million on revenues of $7.52 billion.

McGuire has topped the Star Tribune's 100 list of highest-paid corporate executives several times in recent years, and he holds UnitedHealth stock and options valued at nearly $500 million.

"He's been an empire builder, and we are lucky to have Bill and Nadine," said Sally Pillsbury, a pillar of the philanthropic community.

The McGuires -- he is 55 and she is 54 -- are the kind of younger donors arts organizations desperately need, as longtime givers age or die and as companies relocate to other parts of the country.

"They represent the next wave of philanthropic leaders, and that's a healthy sign for all of us who value our community," said Walker director Kathy Halbreich.

The McGuires moved to Minnesota in 1989 after sojourns in Colorado, where he practiced pulmonary medicine, and Texas, where they went to school. When they met as students, "I had $40 in my bank account and he had nothing," Nadine McGuire said. The couple, married for 33 years, are still creating their fortunes, as opposed to willing them.

"In recent years, we've seen this model of people who amass wealth early, usually in business, but not wait to will it away, like Joan Kroc did recently with her McDonald's fortune," said Bill King, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. "This young group is finding ways to give with the same kind of entrepreneurial zeal like the Bill Gateses of the world. The McGuires are definitely leaders."

The McGuires said that the Walker's performing-arts program, headed since 1997 by Philip Bither, was attractive because it combined so many different elements -- from education to its youthful, diverse audiences. "We are people who live by our curiosity, and the Walker for me has been a great place for that," said Nadine McGuire, a former Walker tour guide and a board member there for the past 10 years. "When we were just moving here, I went to a Picasso show at the Walker and knew at once that I just had to be a docent there."

New bricks, new work

The gift includes bricks-and-mortar money to help build a 385-seat theater at the heart of the Walker's $92-million expansion, scheduled for completion a year from now. The money also will create the first named curatorial position at the Walker, and $2 million is earmarked to commission new work.

"Artists will tell you that the Walker is a haven, a national leader," said Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York and a former curator of performing arts at the Walker. "But during a renovation in my time 22 years ago, part of the frustration was that there wouldn't be a theater even though the program had grown so much. This gift makes it even more special. It's proof positive that the Walker's performing-arts program is unique."

As might be expected, Bither was ecstatic. "It strengthens our position as we see, develop and present new ways and forms," he said. "We do so much here, but it's so scattered. While we will certainly continue to have our community partners, we will now have the opportunity to present work from idea to fruition. And it will give people who come to the museum a chance to see work-in-progress, give artists a wider berth and stage to play, and enrich the community."

The Walker is "trail-blazing," said Patrick Madden of the 1,600-member Association of Performing Arts Presenters in Washington. "We don't rank our organizations, but the Walker has one of the most outstanding arts programs in the country."

In the past 15 years, the Walker has averaged 10 commissions a year. Its performing-arts program, established in 1970, boasts an illustrious roster of artists who presented works under its commissioning aegis: dancer-choreographers Bill T. Jones (the "Promised Land" section of "The Last Supper of Uncle Tom's Cabin") and Twyla Tharp ("Sue's Leg") and such theater artists as Lee Breuer, Bob Telson ("The Gospel at Colonus"), Spalding Gray, Laurie Anderson and Danny Hoch.

The Walker has had its share of controversy, including performances by such transgressive figures as Karen Finley and Ron Athey, used by Sen. Jesse Helms as an example of why the government should not fund the arts.

McGuire said the donation has no middle-of-the-road strings attached. "People say that we should stop degenerate art, but the last time we heard that phrase was not a good time in human history," he said. "We might not agree with everything we see there, but who's to say what will be remembered 100 years from now?"

Nadine McGuire underscored the point: "People swoon over the Impressionists now but they were considered outlaws in their day."

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