Thomas Barlow Walker (1840-1928) became one of the wealthiest men in America in the early 20th century, and used much of his fortune to collect art. As a young man he started working as a surveyor for the railroads. This work brought him to the forests of Northern Minnesota, where he eventually purchased land and started a prosperous logging business. He amassed a vast collection of artwork over the years, not just to satisfy his own personal interest, but for public interest as well. Today the Walker Art Center bears his name and continues his legacy in the arts.
TB Walker married in 1863, and he and his wife raised 8 children in Minneapolis. In 1874, he built a mansion on Hennepin Avenue, and began purchasing art to decorate it. By 1879, his collection was large enough that he decided to open a home gallery with free entrance to the public. Initially he collected European and American paintings and prints. This was followed by acquisitions of Ancient Greek pottery, along with Ancient Egyptian and Roman jewelry and glass. These varied collections were displayed in designated rooms in his gallery.
In the 1890’s Walker developed a new interest in Chinese porcelains and other ceramics. Next, around 1900, he began collecting Chinese jades. This would eventually become one of the largest collections of Chinese jades in the country. He acquired hundreds of jades, predominantly vases and other vessels, but also many sculptures. All of his jades dated to the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, since that was what was available on the market at the time. One of his noteworthy acquisitions was the Jade Mountain created for Emperor Qianlong, dated to 1784, which now resides at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
By 1916, Walker had outgrown his home, and purchased land where the current Walker Art Center is located. His previous home on Hennepin Ave continued to serve as a gallery for his collection, until a new gallery was built in 1927 just before his death. This building was eventually demolished in 1969 when the present Walker Art Center was constructed. After TB Walker’s death, the mission of the Walker Art center changed to focus exclusively on modern and contemporary art. Most of Walker’s original collection, including the jades, was acquired by the Minneapolis Institute of Art or sold on the market.
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