Over the past few years there has been increasing discussion in the arts and cultural community about the shifting roles and expectations of audiences, and how they impact the creation of art as well as the relationship of cultural institutions with their audiences. Last year, for example, ARTnews published “Reshaping the Art Museum,” a story that covered myriad strategies that arts institutions are experimenting with to attract and engage audiences. In that article I mentioned the Walker’s ongoing experiments with the presentation of its collections and the desire of our staff to advance more relational forms of engagement that invite increased viewer participation.
More recently, the Wall Street Journal’s story, “No More ‘Cathedrals of Culture’,” reported on changes that a new and younger generation of museum directors are making. (The writer, Judith Dobrzynski, also wrote a post on her blog at Arts Journal, “Why Must Our Cultural Cathedrals Be Replaced by Town Squares?”)
Not to take the metaphor too far, but our dual mission at the Walker—to serve as “a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences”—does reflect the importance of these kind of adjacencies in a community, and also the rather fluid boundaries that I believe should exist between them. Just as many contemporary artists are increasingly developing communal art-making practices and activating new kinds of relationships with audiences, the Walker too has been finding innovative ways to offer greater access to a broader range of visitors, to create increased points of entry, and to help them feel more engaged and invested in the Walker as an institution. These kinds of efforts have been most prominent in the current Open Field program taking place right outside our Vineland Place entry. In this summer-long experiment, we have not only invited the Twin Cities community at large to activate our “backyard” but have also partnered with a range of community groups and artist collectives from around the country to curate events and programs.
In the Walker galleries, we are also showcasing a significant number of the contemporary artists who have been directly or indirectly engaging with the public, and doing so for decades. Take two large-scale installations by Hélio Oiticica (from 1973) and Rirkrit Tiravanija (2006) currently on view in the Burnet Gallery, which both require audience participation; or The Talent Show, an exhibition that just closed, which examined complicated relationships that have emerged between artists, audiences, and participants over more than 40 years. One of its most popular works, by Peter Campus, was first installed at the Walker in 1971.
As contemporary artists seek to activate new relationships with their audiences, museums and arts institutions help to foster these kinds of conversations. I’m proud to say that the Walker is uniquely positioned in this regard, not only as a platform and as a convener, but also as an instigator and catalytic voice. Indeed, we remain deeply committed to our mission and to developing our core, committed audiences while also seeking to broaden and diversify them.
The Walker’s efforts to encourage a “town square” atmosphere—in certain contexts and at appropriate times—does not signal an a priori abandonment of the institution’s commitment to quality, scholarship, stewardship, and presenting timely exhibitions of important artists and artistic movements (the traditional role of a “cathedral of culture.”) Currently on view is Guillermo Kuitca: Everything—Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980-2008, a survey and catalogue that find new meanings in this artist’s singular painting practice. The Walker has also organized From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, the first U.S. survey of work from this contemporary photographer, opening next month; and co-organized Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers, the first U.S. retrospective for this artist in nearly 30 years, opening in October. (The Walker has also published catalogues for both of those exhibitions.)
And yet, even as Kuitca was helping to install his exhibition inside the Walker, he enthusiastically participated in Drawing Club, a weekly “town square” event outdoors, which brings together artists and others to make collaborative art works. As an avid draftsman, he was happy and even eager to meet fellow artists and non-artists at this convivial gathering. Soth, who is always interested in engaging with his audiences, is creating an online photography project for the public in conjunction with his exhibition.
In short, arts institutions need not make either/or choices when it comes to the cathedral vs. town square metaphor. They can – indeed, I believe they must – take a both/and approach, and strive to have these roles converge in bold, imaginative ways that not only extend creative practice but also include the public in the creative economy. Embodying the notion of a town square does not have to involve pandering or diminishing the loftiest ideals about art, arts institutions, or the intimacy of the experience of art for the public; it’s simply making room for everyone, and making efforts to welcome them.
I hope that more voices will join in this ongoing conversation. Please share your thoughts and comments in the box below.