Innovative educational activities and a commitment to providing access to art for all people have been at the heart of the Walker Art Center’s mission since its inception as a public institution. In 1940, the Walker opened with a roster of offerings that included free art classes and lectures, a children’s newspaper, a student council and exhibitions, statewide extension activities, and free meeting space for community groups. Its civic-minded spirit is illustrated in such early programs as the Inquisition, a lively weekly event in which audience members were invited to “stump the experts” on a panel of specialists with their questions about art. In 1942, classes ranging from painting and sculpture to industrial and interior design were codified into a formal art school that remained active until 1950.
During the 1950s, under the stewardship of Director H. Harvard Arnason, an emphasis was placed on helping audiences interpret rather than make art. While at the Walker, Arnason continued as chair of the art department at the University of Minnesota, which created a stronger working relationship between the two institutions. His desire to expend the museum experience into the classroom furthered the Walker’s partnerships with the Minneapolis Public Schools. The program focus also expanded from visual arts to other forms, including dance, film, poetry, design, and architecture. The creation of educational exhibitions for children during this period, such as Weather and Art, The Artist’s Studio, and Seeing into Space, set a precedent for future experiential and gallery-based projects.
During his thirty-year tenure as director (1961 to 1990), Martin Friedman championed creative risk-taking and nontraditional approaches to education. His ability to leverage new sources of federal and local funding fostered the development of innovative programs such as the 1968 Walker-Bryant Art Workshop, the Walker’s first community-based outreach program for teens. New Learning Spaces and Places, an ambitious 1974 exhibition accompanied by an issue of Design Quarterly, examined new contexts and spaces for learning, including a prescient exploration of ways that computer technology would impact the classroom. In 1979, with major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Walker launched a three-year, interdisciplinary initiative entitled The Meanings of Modernism, which formalized its commitment to fostering adult education programs by inviting artists, musicians, choreographers, filmmakers, writers, art critics, and scholars to discuss contemporary art.
“Participatory,” “experimental,” and “artist-driven” are words that describe much of the programming of the 1980s. In 1984, the citywide ArtFest celebrated the opening of new educational spaces that included the Walker’s Art Lab, a multipurpose studio classroom. The department soon began commissioning artists to create playful, interactive installations for the space, a practice that continues in the enhanced Art Lab designed by Herzog & de Meuron. The department frequently works with national and local artists on residency projects and commissions. The opening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 1988 literally provided an expanded field on which to engage visitors of all ages.
When Director Kathy Halbreich arrived in 1991, she made a commitment to expand the Walker’s engagement with diverse audiences. Programs such as Free First Saturday and Free Thursday encourage visitors to participate in the institution’s full spectrum of offerings. Explore Memberships make it possible for people with limited incomes to receive complimentary member benefits and event tickets. In 1994, the Walker became the first art museum in the country to devote staff solely to creating programs for teenagers. Its cornerstone is the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC), a rotating group of twelve young people who develop activities of particular interest to their peers. Teens are frequent participants in artist-in-residence projects, which for more than a decade have brought prominent visual, performing, and media artists together with the public in the creation of new works. Further outreach happens with Walker on Wheels, a commissioned mobile art lab that travels throughout the area and provides a flexible space for activities and gatherings.
Walker educators and curators have continued to experiment with interpretive programs that reflect changing artistic practices and encourage active engagement with the art and artists of our time. The Andersen Window Gallery, a focused study space within the galleries, invited visitors to take a closer look at contemporary art and culture. Early installations explored the collection decade by decade, beginning with Edward Hopper’s Office at Night (1940), while later iterations showcased the work and processes of artists-in-residence such as filmmaker Spencer Nakasako in 2001, whose in-gallery video booth allowed visitors to record their own stories. For children and families, the WAC Packs filled with interpretive tools and the Artwork of the Month brochures encourage in-gallery learning. The advent of the Internet led to such pioneering projects as ArtsConnectEd, a Web site for teachers, students, and parents developed with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
With the Walker’s building expansion, the possibilities for direct participation in creative processes have been multiplied. Dialog, an interactive table, provides visitors with information about artworks on display though media resources drawn from the collections and archives. The Best Buy Arcade, a space for changing installations, offers visitors immersive experiences with art. For its debut, it hosts Dolphin Oracle II (2004), a work by Piotr Szyhalski and Richard Shelton that uses digital animation and artificial intelligence to answer questions posed by visitors.
More than fifty years ago, then-Walker Director Daniel Defenbacher declared, “An Art Center is a ‘town meeting’ in a field of human endeavor as old as man himself.” That idea finds renewal in Halbreich’s vision: “The metaphor for the museum is no longer a church or temple, but a lively forum or town square.” The twenty-first-century Walker Art Center is a place of celebration, challenge, and refuge at the heart of the community.