Attention-getting Walker sign gets positive city reviews

When the Walker Art Center reopens in early 2005 showcasing its $67 million expansion, its new Hennepin Avenue entrance will feature a 60-foot-long-by-9-foot-tall sign -- dark letters projected onto clear glass scrolling information on new exhibits, films, performing arts and educational opportunities.

The messages will replace the banners that once hung on the art center's Sculpture Garden side. Walker Director Kathy Halbreich called the banners "static and fixed" that "don't really give our audiences a sense the possibility of just stopping in and finding something interesting going on."

She said the new sign is "part of the cinematic nature of the building itself." However, the attention-getters may be too lively for the city's zoning code.

According to a memo from city planner Jason Wittenberg, the Walker's plan is a "flashing sign," which city code limits to the downtown area and C3A (community activity center) zoning. The Walker, 725 Vineland Place, is in neither.

The city limits flashing signs because they can annoy nearby residents and confuse passing motorists, Wittenberg's memo said.

Displaying its own creativity, the Minneapolis Planning Commission created a new process to allow museums that are 100,000 square feet or larger to apply for a flashing sign variance. (By that definition, only the Walker and Minneapolis Institute of Arts qualify.)

The new ordinance now goes to the City Council for approval.

Halbreich said the sign would not add light; the dark letters would block interior light that would otherwise shine out. "Once people understand that, it abates some preliminary concerns," she said.

The Walker is still designing its sign and will need to apply for a variance before it is installed. The messages will move along the top of the Hennepin Lounge, the informal gathering space that connects the original building to the north with the new Herzog & de Meuron addition to the south.

The sign would be across the street from 510 Groveland, a condominium. Gene Gaines, the condo association president, said Walker representatives spoke to the board.

"Everyone in attendance was quite impressed," he said. "There were no negative feelings whatsoever. We thought it was a creative and imaginative way of dealing with the signage."

Halbreich estimated the sign would cost $200,000, but said it would depend on the technology used. "We are pushing the envelope a bit. That is what makes it a fascinating project," she said.

The sign would be easier to read during dark winter evenings than it would when the sun shines on it in the mornings, she said.