This week I’m heading to the Museum of Modern Art to participate in a program called Mining Museum Education. The discussion will focus on the early history of museum education, an often overlooked subject in written histories about the evolution of the modern art museum. A large part of the MoMA event will focus on the work of four individuals that could be considered progenitors of contemporary museum education: Katherine Kuh (Art Institute of Chicago), Victor D’Amico (Museum of Modern Art), Hilla Rebay (Guggenheim Museum) and Arthur Lismer (Art Gallery of Ontario).
I’ve been invited to speak during a colleagues-only session about the pioneering use of media to engage the public with modern art. Specifically, I will be talking about The Inquisition, an arts quiz show that the Walker began hosting in 1940 and a project we revived this past winter. Since I will have the stage for while, I’ve decided to place Daniel Defenbacher, the Walker’s first Director, in context as one of the early pioneers of audience engagement. (Defenbacher is the charmer in a light-colored suit sitting on the lower right hand side of the photograph).
With roots in the private collection of industrialist T.B. Walker, many people are surprised to learn that the Walker Art Center, was established as a community art center under the auspices of the federal Works Progress Administration in January 1940. Directing the new Walker was Daniel Defenbacher, the WPA official who had headed up the government’s whirlwind efforts to establish more than 70 such centers across the United States. An architect and industrial designer by training and a self-proclaimed natural born salesman, Defenbacher was abundantly energetic and passionate about “creating a museum of the present for the people of today”. His directorship was an opportunity to put his ideas about art and its role in society to the test and during his decade-long tenure he created an impressive roster of exhibitions and educational programs. Ironically, his populist drive wound up producing some of the more forward-looking and radical programming for museums at the time including The Everyday Art Gallery, The Idea House, a mass-produced toy set called Magnet Master, and the little known “stunt” called The Inquisition. The timing of the talk coincides nicely with Open Field, our current experiment in participation. Throughout the summer, I’ll continue mining the Walker’s history of audience participation and share some of the treasures discovered in the archives while researching this talk, including this charming flyer welcoming visitors to the museum.