Walking into the Walker Art Center offices some six months ago to begin my fellowship, I immediately noticed the distinct areas each curatorial and administrative department occupied. The Visual Arts offices spread out to my left as I walked through the main office doors; and only by making my way down the hallway directly in front of those doors did I came upon the Performing Arts offices. Turning the corner and walking right, I encountered Moving Images, and, then, yet more turns to get to Marketing, Publishing, Human Resources, and Accounting. Education and Public Programs, as well as Development and Archives, all occupy completely different floors of the art center. My spatial mapping of the office block revealed early on in my tenure at the Walker the way in which departments, in concert with various institutional processes, remain distinct. The Mellon Interdisciplinary Art Initiative, then, serves a key and important function, aiming at it does at disrupting this office choreography.
This, the second of a four-part series on interdisciplinarity in the contemporary art center (read part one), focuses on how the curation and presentation of interdisciplinary projects re-choreographs the ways in which Walker employees work. Using the metaphor of choreography, I explore how such projects quite literally ask staff to move in different ways through the institution and engage in different types of discussions. Art that crosses disciplinary boundaries, merging the ephemerality of live performance with the materiality of art objects, allows an institution like the Walker to reimagine its structure and encourage the work undertaken by curators, technicians, editors, administrators, and interns into new types of relationships. Interdisciplinarity, in other words, offers one way to challenge ingrained models of museum structuring, whether those structures be the organization of curatorial departments or institutional management styles.
When museums first emerged in the 19th century in the United States, they bore little resemblance to our contemporary, colloquial image of such institutions. They were, instead, chaotic affairs. Among the earliest US art museums, the Peale Museum in Baltimore perhaps best exemplifies this chaos.1 Objects like the “Feejee mermaid,” which to modern sensibilities might seem more at home in P.T. Barnum’s famous sideshows and vaudeville acts, shared gallery space with tempered landscape paintings, the skeletal remains of a wooly mammoth, and Egyptian antiquities. Such displays owed much to early European cabinets of curiosity, in which cultural objects, flora, and fauna that claimed to represent the known world were crammed together, the preponderance of things meant to articulate a sense of geographic and cultural knowledge. The emergence of cabinets of curiosity in the late Renaissance was spurred by European colonization of the Americas and, later, Africa and Southeast Asia. Such collections included objects from these newly “discovered” lands, overtly linking them to concurrent colonial projects. Less overtly, the display strategies used in cabinets of curiosity aimed to systematically arrange and control the collection. These micro projects of ordering mirrored the geopolitical aims of various European powers, seeking to conquer certain lands, peoples, and resources.
These early museums did not distinguish between art and artifact, cultural production or scientific knowledge; rather the early museum was just one in a growing landscape of modern public attractions, irreverently mixing leisure, education, and the carnivalesque. By the 1870s though, as the first museums specifically focused on art opened in the US, this earlier model of museum organization and display was replaced by that of the encyclopedic museum.2 These museums imagined that it was both possible to achieve exhaustive coverage of cultural or natural history within a single collection and that such knowledge was best managed and displayed through the careful segregation of geographic regions or time periods. While US institutions adopted this model from European institutions, like the British Museum or the Louvre (both of which by the 1870s were close to a century old), they likewise refined what it meant to be encyclopedic. No longer were such institutions imagined as repositories for an empire’s wealth or cultural capital. Rather, the US encyclopedic museum aimed to mirror certain ideologies key to the fledgling democracy: namely (an imagined) meritocracy and a sense of intellectual audacity. The US encyclopedic museum no longer displayed an empire’s vast wealth so as to provoke awe, but rather such institutions educated the huddled masses in matters of taste, history, scientific methods, and, more obliquely, citizenship. Curation became a discipline, indeed almost quasi-scientific in its methods, and adopted a set of increasingly codified systems of classification and ordering. Coupled with the increasing professionalizing of curation, art museums adopted the model of distinct departments, each tasked with a particular area of expertise and genre of artistic production. While contemporary art museums and centers have variously grappled with the historic legacy of the encyclopedic museum, it, nevertheless, remains deeply ingrained in the institutional DNA and collective imagining of the modern museum.
The Walker Art Center’s initiative to support interdisciplinary art and artists through research and commissioning offers one way of grappling with such legacies. Indeed, the Walker has long attempted to dismantle such legacies, collapsing, for example, distinct visual art practices (sculpture, painting, works on paper) into one department, Visual Art. By organizing around a series of interdisciplinary projects, the Mellon Initiative offers a choreographic score, of sorts, for radically reimagining what the art center of the future might be. It might be, the Initiative seems to promise, one not grounded in the rigid classificatory systems of the 19th century—models indebted to structures of colonialism, imperialism, cultural privilege, and conquest—but rather one built upon the challenges of working in between.3 It might, in some small way, return us to Peale’s gallery: the mermaid, the mastodon, and the painting jumbled together, challenging us to think across and between the fantastic, the historic, and the aesthetic.
The Walker has a long history of mustering resources across departmental budget-lines and staff expertise to produce interdisciplinary projects. (Indeed, an important component of the current Mellon Initiative is to surface certain interdisciplinary art works in the Walker’s history.) With current artistic director Olga Viso’s arrival in 2008, however, a heightened awareness around cultivating cross-departmental exchanges took hold. In a recent conversation, she discussed how she hoped an accumulation of smaller institutional shifts might make it possible to fully actualize an interdisciplinary art center. These incremental steps included changing terminology: replacing the word “museum” with “center” so as to dispel the historical legacies so attached to the museum and encouraging staff to discuss projects using the first person plural—our exhibition, our season—rather than singular, more proprietary pronouns.4 Viso likewise added “interdisciplinary” as a line item in the center’s annual report, ensuring that projects that drew upon the combined expertise of multiple departments were tracked. She encouraged curators to introduce visiting artists to colleagues in other departments and to travel to biennials, performance festivals, and museum openings together. Such steps, which cut across institutional terminology, strategic planning goals, and interpersonal relationships, imagined interdisciplinarity as akin to a dance form. By surfacing a series of steps from that larger form—the introduction, the group trip, the conversation at the strategic meeting—a specific choreography emerged, which articulated one way to perform an art center grounded in the interdisciplinary rather than the departmental.
While such pragmatic and relational steps have done much to fuel an ever-increasing culture of cross-departmental collaboration at the Walker, it is far from a smooth process. Such interdisciplinary projects, as Viso described them—like the acclaimed dance-due Eiko & Koma’s performance installation Naked, commissioned for the 2010 exhibition Event Horizon—brought “staff to its knees.” She continued that such projects were few and far between; it took, as she termed it, “time to forget the birth pains.” I share these comments not to incautiously divulge the challenges that can arise when bringing interdisciplinary projects to actualization, but rather to note the way Viso’s descriptors return us to the body and, indeed, the body in motion: being brought to its knees and laboring through childbirth. If interdisciplinarity, as I have posited, offers one way to raise the specter of the encyclopedic museum, it does so by forcing staff to behave and move differently. Choreography is not just a metaphor for explaining how interdisciplinary projects affect the center; it is a claim to embodiment. Our intellectual, curatorial labor leaves marks upon our bodies and habituates us to follow certain pathways through the center over and over again. I walk to the green room; you walk to the galleries; I walk to the archives; you walk to art storage, and rarely the twain shall meet.
Interdisciplinary collaborations likewise exist in a different institutional rhythm. Working across departments is rarely efficient, requiring as it does that we create a new system of working. For instance: if a live performance happens in a gallery, should the technicians who manage the theater or the art installation team who install exhibitions manage the performance? A conversation—or series of conversations—must be had about which groups’ skill sets best align with the needs of the performance. While these discussions surface the various expertise that exist within the institution, they also reveal a more charged set of concerns: union rates, labor best practices, differing management styles, and the proprietariness that attaches to spaces within the center. These discussions, of course, also take time. The usual hyper-efficiency of the center as a whole and of its various employees comes into conflict with the slower tempo required of interdisciplinary collaborations. The frictionless ease of working in familiar ways is disrupted by the need to ask—again and again and again—“tell me how you do this?”
To a large degree, the needed efficiency of a place like the Walker is because large numbers of people depend upon its effective operation. Its employees, the artists we support, and the publics we serve all require that we—as an institution—operate as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Efficiency becomes increasingly tied to best practices, ensuring the institution continues to serve all of the various individuals and communities who depend upon it. Interdisciplinary projects interrupt this mandate to work ever-more effectively, increasing, with every additional conversation, the potential of ‘failure.’ Efficiency, in other words, emerges from a desire to best serve and continue to serve the various publics and employees who depend upon an institution like the Walker. It also quite easily fits within the ethos of corporate management structures that increasingly predominate in large cultural institutions. What is efficiency, after all, but a notion of order, regulation, and time management designed to produce the maximum economic profit in the least amount of time.
The trend towards ever-more corporate styles of management emerged, roughly, in the early 1990s as a series of leading art museums found themselves in dire economic straights and turned to the corporate sector as one model for ensuring their longevity and solvency. Glenn Lowry’s tenure at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in particular, has become paradigmatic of this trend. If, to write in generalities, 19th-century museums were concerned with educating the masses on issues of “taste,” then contemporary art centers and museums increasingly imagine themselves as branded destinations. Such models depend upon notions of maximum labor efficiency, aligning the time of art-making with hyper-effective labor practices. The way in which contemporary artists, curators, and arts educators, though, are increasingly creating interdisciplinary work can run quite counter to the hyper-efficiency demanded of corporate management. Interdisciplinary work is messy and confusing, difficult and, at times, contentious. If that contentiousness can be quite banal—out of whose budget line does the cost of an artist’s travel come?—it nevertheless points to the birthing pains of working differently, of slowing down and stopping to reflect upon what it means to claim expertise as an artist or curator. It means embracing the limbo and stasis of the “inter.”
To return to Viso’s simple invitation for curators to introduce visiting artists to their cross-departmental colleagues, what interdisciplinarity can encourage is a shift in corporate ethos, replacing efficient work with systems of support and interdependence. The handshake becomes the interdisciplinary gesture of engagement. It is at once a gesture of reaching out across departmental barriers, of re-choreographing the spatial layout of the Walker’s offices, and also of pausing, lingering in the extended introduction and conversation.
1 Gary Kulik, “Mermaids, Mummies, and Mastodons: The Evolution of the American Museum; The Other Museum: Power and Spirit,” The Journal of American History 78.1 (19991): 255.
2 For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Art, Boston were both incorporated in 1870; what is now the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian opened in 1876; and the Art Institute of Chicago was founded in 1879. Kathleen Curran, The Invention of the American Art Museum: from Craft to Kulturgeschiechte, 1870–1930 (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2016) 2.
3 Of course, interdisciplinarity is far from the only model of how to contend with such muséal legacies. The National Museum of African American History and Culture offers a different model; unlike the formalist gesture embedded in the move from disciplinary to interdisciplinary, NMAAHC challenges museum imaginaries by addressing histories of racial exclusion and white privilege that remain so engrained in our national perception concerning who has access to museums.
4 When T.B. Walker opened his private art collection to the public in 1927, the institution was called the Walker Art Galleries. During Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, the Walker, with funds from the Works Progress Administration, was expanded and renamed the Walker Art Center. Nevertheless, the gallery-centered ethos of the Walker meant that colloquially it was primarily referred to as a museum, only reinscribing a hierarchy of artistic priority and a privileging of visual art and gallery exhibition.