At a time in our country when the values of a creative and inclusive society are being decidedly challenged, it is evermore important for arts organizations to affirm their values and promises to the communities they serve. As director of the Walker Art Center and on Arts Advocacy Day, this annual day of individual and collective action for the arts, I assert the Walker’s mission to be a catalytic and forward-thinking organization devoted to artists and audiences, and to supporting an open and inclusive culture grounded in the principles of free expression and concern for the common good, which are the foundations of our democracy.
As I boarded the bus this morning to join Minnesota Citizens for the Arts and nearly 1,000 arts and culture workers at the Minnesota State Capitol on Arts Advocacy Day, I felt pride in knowing that both the Walker and the National Endowment for the Arts, established in 1940 and 1965 respectively, were founded through federal support and action. Their creation was underpinned by a belief that national investment in the arts is essential and that it vitally matters.
Although I am deeply heartened by this history, I am struck by how the purpose of Arts Advocacy Day has never seemed more urgent and necessary, as threats to the existence of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) continue to mount and the values of openness and inclusivity are daily challenged. A society is only as free as its artists, and when individual freedoms around speech, travel, and funding are restricted, new more insidious forms of censorship and intolerance are bound to ensue.
Established by Congress in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the NEA is the largest funder and champion of the arts across 50 states. Its mission is based on an abiding conviction that the arts play an integral role in our national life and public discourse. The NEA’s founding legislation attests to the belief of its legislative authors that the arts actively contribute to citizenry, to forging mutual understanding among people, and to improving livability in diverse communities across the country. I’m a member of the National Council on the Arts, a Senate-confirmed advisory body of nearly 20 artists and arts professionals who advise the NEA, and as a first generation Cuban American whose parents were Cuban exiles in the 1960s, I am proud to serve with an incredibly diverse panel of individuals who together represent the future demographic composition of our country and who all staunchly believe that the arts and the freedoms of artists in our society are integral to our democracy.
The mission of the Walker, which was founded as a public art center in 1940, was born of the same national conviction that art matters in society. Established under the auspices of the Federal Art Project and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Walker was conceived as a “meeting place for all the arts” in which the public could “meet the artist on common ground”—a place of gathering for citizens to find inspiration, connection, and community at a time of war and global conflict. We are thus a product of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal–era policies that sought to put Americans, including its artists, back to work following the Great Depression. As one of more than 70 community art centers established across the country by the WPA, the Walker was also envisioned as a vital space in which democracy and civil society could be enacted.
As an exemplar of this mission, one of the Walker’s earliest exhibitions showcased the work of the German painter Franz Marc, whose iconic painting Die grossen blauen Pferde (The Large Blue Horses) (1911) represented a work and painting style vehemently decried by the Third Reich as “degenerate art.” This painting, acquired by the Walker in 1942, became the cornerstone of the Walker’s collection of new art and enabled its director to host a broad public discussion about governmental censorship of the arts and the dangers of limits on individual freedoms. Its presentation and acquisition were foundational to crystalizing our active mission to “examine the questions that shape and inspire us individuals, cultures and communities” in an ever-changing world.
Since then, the Walker has been a curious and questioning institution that has sought to challenge the status quo in all forms of thinking and making. We take inspiration from the artists we present and seek to extend to our audiences the same freedoms that we offer artists. We have consistently championed the role of the art and artists in society and actively defended free speech and artistic freedom in the US and abroad. In the early 1990s, the Walker’s trustees and director testified before Congress during the Culture Wars. In the 2011, the Walker protested the Chinese government’s detention of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. A year later, we added our voice, along with hundreds of cultural organizations across the state, in opposing a constitutional amendment that, if successful, would have banned same-sex marriage (it failed). The following year, such unions were made legal.
We have also consistently sought to be a “safe place for unsafe ideas,” one where artists and audiences feel supported to ask provocative questions, gain insights about other cultures and alternative ways of thinking, and explore spaces of difference and intersection, as well as find unity and social cohesion, especially at times of great social division and political unrest. In a radio program in 1940, the Walker’s first director Daniel Defenbacher gave a telling and inspiring response to the question of why the arts matter on the eve of the United States entering World War II. He proclaimed: “Because our cultural defense is as important as our geographic defense.”
Now more than 75 years later, our challenges are different as the Walker’s ability to enact its inclusive values and global mission are challenged by new restrictions on our borders and limits to individual freedoms. Yet we remain emboldened to affirm our pursuits with even greater resolve and conviction. We vow to:
- Actively support artists and amplify their voices, no matter where they come from,
- Champion the role of the arts and artists in society and the rights to free expression,
- Bring artists and audiences together,
- Host risk and experimentation,
- Be a generative place for new thinking, and
- Embrace the world around us through relevant programming, publishing, and events.
And we do so through the programs we offer and the artists we present:
- A new website, launching in May, with new functionalities that foster cross-pollination of viewpoints,
- An expansion of the Artist Op-Eds series, a digital platform that for nearly three years has commissioned artists to respond to events in the news.
- Programming that’s relevant to both our times and the communities we serve, from the native film series INDIgenesis this March, which will include a showcase of indigenous perspectives on Standing Rock, to the exhibition Adíos Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, which looks at artistic expression during Cuba’s revolutionary epoch, when many artists were censored by the government.
- Due to a dynamic response, the Cinema of Urgency film series—usually programmed only on election years—will continue next fall with a focus on films that pose critical questions about today’s most pressing social, political, environmental, and economic issues. Each screening will include discussions with filmmakers, local community leaders, and other guest speakers.
- Major survey exhibitions of and new commissions with artists of color from the US and around the world.
- A commitment to showcasing the works of artists from countries of origin impacted by the current administration’s travel ban.
- Collective action with other arts organizations to preserve our federal agencies and challenge policies that negatively impact the advancement of culture.
- A lasting commitment to creating accessible spaces for audiences of all genders and abilities in our new indoor and outdoor spaces.
We believe that the Walker and the expanded Minneapolis Sculpture Garden offer a welcoming civic space for the public to not only be introduced to and be inspired by art we present but to bring a multiplicity of perspectives into respectful consideration and focus. This is what the Walker does best, and has always done as a curious, questioning, catalytic organization founded on the principles of our democracy—principles that today more than ever call us to question everything.