As a center for contemporary art and culture devoted to the present and speculative about the future, the Walker is an institution that at its core is about asking questions.
What compels artists to make? To create works reflective of and responsive to the times in which they live? What questions do they explore in their creative processes, and what do they ask us to consider about our own lives, about society, about the realities we live and observe? Why does art today take the varied forms that it does? What concerns shape them and what makes them so singular? How do the cultural artifacts of our time relate to those that came before? What does that history of questioning and choice-making reveal? What does art inspire in you?
These are the questions that have motivated and guided our work over the past 75 years as a public art center. As a questioning institution, we have taken our lead from artists, who are at the very center of what we do—whether the innovators in our galleries or the youngest artists, kids in our Art Lab. Questions such as “why,” “why not,” and “what if” are implanted within the artistic process. Formal questions about identity and the status quo, about history and our place in it drive the creative expressions of our time. This is what fills the stages, cinema, galleries, and spaces of our 16-acre campus.
The act of questioning is so integral to what the Walker is about that it’s embedded in our institutional mission statement:
The Walker Art Center is a catalyst for creative expressions of artists and the active engagement of audiences. Focusing on the visual, performing, and media arts of our time, the Walker takes a global, multidisciplinary, and diverse approach to the creation, presentation, interpretation, collection, and preservation of art. Walker programs examine the questions that shape and inspire us as individuals, cultures, and communities.
While the Walker performs some of the functions of a museum–collecting, preserving, presenting, and contextualizing art of the present as well as the recent past–we aim to be more than that. Unlike most museums, we present more questions than answers, aiming not for closed-ended authority, but open-ended inquiry and an ongoing dialogue about the culture around us. As the old Walker tagline stated: “Closed Mondays. Open to interpretation.”
Holding a multiplicity of perspectives and providing open platforms for dialogue and debate are at the heart of the Walker and its commitment to creative inquiry. This is why we invite artists from around the world to help us frame those questions. This is why we host hundreds of public programs each year to ask critics, scholars, other artists, and the public to offer alternative points of view—to foster dialogue and frame even more questions. And this is why, several years ago, we began to publish artist-authored articles on our website that bring issues surrounding and contextualizing their art to the surface.
Stimulating the act of questioning as well as providing context for approaching these questions are important institutional values that we seek to offer on both our physical and virtual campuses. And just this year, the Walker launched a series of op-eds on its website—the first such platform for topical engagement offered by a cultural institution. Here artists reflect on the meaning of citizenship in global culture or comment on the implications of recent news stories—such as the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri—on our culture.
Throughout its history, the Walker has never been afraid to examine the questions that shape and inspire us as individuals, cultures, and communities. The Walker’s first director, Daniel Defenbacher, asked if a cultural institution could be a catalyst for social cohesion following the Great Depression and contribute to the American economy during World War II. The Walker’s third director, Martin Friedman, testified before Congress during the Culture Wars, arguing that public support of the arts is essential and that artists should have the freedom to continue asking questions. This year at the Walker, multidisciplinary artist Ralph Lemon compels us to ask if live arts can be preserved and collected by a museum. And in our community, what downtown Minneapolis and the park system can and should become are vital questions that we are engaged in today.
For the past 75 years, the Walker has been a dynamic and sometimes provocative space of questioning. As we celebrate our 75th anniversary, it is useful to reflect on the cornerstone question that started it all: “The citizens of Minneapolis are offered a community center for art and other activities,” read the headline of a 1939 Minnesota Arts Council/Walker Art Center brochure. “Shall we take it?”
The Works Progress Administration and the Federal Art Project—two government agencies charged with getting Americans back to work and fostering the country’s cultural life, respectively, in the decade following the Great Depression—were beginning to build a national network of community art centers in the late 1930s. They offered financing to turn T.B. Walker’s then-private Walker Art Galleries into an art center, “a place where individual aspirations can find expression,” “a forum and artistic melting pot,” and, particularly relevant to a city still reeling after the Depression, “a solvent for interclass misunderstanding.” All residents had to do, as that fund-raising brochure stated, was help raise $5,500 for building upgrades by purchasing memberships starting at one dollar per year.
The rest is history—75 years of it. On January 4, 1940, the new Walker Art Center opened its doors as a newly reimagined artist- and visitor-centric “meeting place for all the arts,” beginning a transformation into the contemporary, cross-disciplinary art institution it is today. Its stock in trade was free art classes, exhibitions, and presentations of local dance, poetry, chamber music, and film screenings. It was the largest of the more than 70 regional art centers established by the WPA between 1935 and 1940 and distinguished by its collection. And its founding question—with its implications of civic engagement, accountability to community, and the interconnectedness between artists and audiences—is with us today. It drives the artists we work with and the programs we offer. It has pushed our expanded focus into intersecting artistic disciplines and into artists, movements, and practices around the globe. And it has often led us to some challenging and difficult questions that have made us into the institution we are today and what we become in the future.
What does it mean to collect the art of our time? What does it mean to be more than a museum? Why do we need a safe place for unsafe ideas? What does it mean to give artists a voice? Does a museum even need walls? Do artistic categories matter today? How can art show us who we are—and aren’t?
As my predecessor Kathy Halbreich wrote in 1991, “Art rarely suggests right or wrong answers but rather establishes paths for both individual and collective inquiry, the directions of which differ widely from artist to artist and from viewer to viewer. The process of inquiry itself sharpens observation and learning.”
For the past 75 years, the Walker Art Center has not been afraid to ask questions, and these queries—both old and new—are featured in the website we launch today that inaugurates our 75th anniversary as a public art center. Asking questions has sometimes taken us to uncomfortable places, but it has also taken us to a place where growth and mutual understanding become possible. This is how we come together as individuals, artists, and community, so join us, and ask as many questions as you like.