*Levi Weinhagen is serving as Artist in Residence for Education and Community Programs from September 2014 through February 2015*
“Before answering your question I want to be sure that all of us understand what I mean when I say artist. I am not only talking about painters or sculptors, I am talking also about the men who design furniture, automobiles, refrigerators, tableware, and the things we all have around us every day. For all of these artist the Center does a very great deal. Artists must have people who use and appreciate their work. It stands to reason that if we, as a people, are more conscious of what the artist does for us, the artist will have greater support and more economic security. The Center is building among people an interest and appreciation for art. Although the Center also provides 80 jobs for artists and technicians, in the long run, its work of bringing more people to the support of art is more lasting than the paycheck it gives the artist.”
—Daniel Defenbacher, first director of the Walker, radio interview, August 1941
I’ve been digging through the Walker archives recently and, with the help of the amazing Walker archivist Jill Vuchetich, I got my hands on transcripts from correspondences and radio interviews from 1940 and 1941 surrounding the early days of the Walker’s public institution-hood. (One quick side note about archivist Jill Vuchetich: she is lovely and super-knowledgeable. Seriously, I dare you to try and ask her something about the Walker’s history that she can’t answer. End of digression.)
There’s this fascinating thing I’ve noticed while going through random images, texts, and other museum detritus from the past. Half of the things I’m reading or seeing from 50-plus years ago feel very dated and specific to their era, and the other half feel entirely relevant and contemporary. I know things are often cyclical and art is specifically a place where something old is constantly being made new again. I’m not a genius, but I work hard to stay on the right side of total idiot.
But the above quote I pulled feels so close in so many ways to conversations that are surrounding my creative community all the time lately that I can’t quite process my reaction to it. I can’t decide if it’s thrilling to see that 70 years ago significant thinkers in the art world were working to remind the general public that art is so much more than what you typically see in a museum or if it’s disheartening to think that one of the biggest barriers artists have in connecting with their audience, being perceived as human and accessible, hasn’t actually progressed in any significant way.
Luckily, I’ve got a plan. I love working creatively with young people for many reasons; they’re not worried about looking stupid, they’re generally excited to try something new, and they think up awesome and unique ideas constantly. But the main reason is because young people have not yet been told that fart jokes aren’t “Art.”
I think the democratization of art and what people think of as art lives and dies with our children. Any programming I create for young people, any performances I stage for an all-ages audience, any work I make with this audience in mind is in service of highlighting to them that they are constantly making and consuming art in countless forms. It’s not just about making people “more conscious of what art does for us,” but also about making people more conscious of how much art they are doing all the time. The more people who self-identify as makers of art, the more support there will be for art in all its forms. The only way to change people’s relationship to art and artists on a grand scale is to connect with them when they’re young and keep connecting as they make their way through the world.
A vital part of that ongoing connection is pointing out how funny it is when someone slips and falls on a wet floor, and then pointing out how artistic that funny fall can be.