In 1996, the Walker Art Center established the New Media Initiatives Department to advance its mission through the use of innovative forms of digital technologies, particularly the Internet, and to create new educational and artistic projects. Steve Dietz, the department’s first director and curator from 1996 to 2003, developed a pioneering program that reflected the institution’s historical commitment to contemporary arts and communication, and an unprecedented approach to the opportunities that Internet technology offered in the field of art and culture.
With a unique twofold mission to investigate the informational and aesthetic possibilities that new digital technologies offered, the Walker’s New Media Initiatives department was quickly dubbed “a leader in high-tech cultural initiatives” by the New York Times. The 1998 acquisition of äda’web and the formation of the Digital Arts Study Collection put the Walker at the forefront of museums engaged in collecting and preserving new media. In the same year, with funding from the Jerome Foundation, the program was able to support new media as a viable and significant area of emerging artists’ efforts through a series of projects and critical essays commissioned for the Walker’s Gallery 9 online exhibition space. Between 1997 and 2003, it became one of the most recognized online venues for the exhibition and contextualization of Internet-based art and presented the work of more than one hundred artists, including 0100101110101101.org, Mark Amerika, Margaret Crane and Jon Winet, Auriea Harvey, Lisa Jevbratt, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, and Piotr Szyhalski.
In the field of information access, the Walker partnered with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to build a shared technology infrastructure and the services needed to digitize and deliver resources on the Internet. In 1998, the two institutions launched ArtsConnectEd, a gateway to their combined collections and educational resources that has become the model for similar Internet-based educational initiatives. Under the auspices of ArtsConnectEd and the development of the Walker’s institutional site, New Media Initiatives implemented information systems that made it possible to deliver the Walker’s archives, collections, and program information on the Web.
By early 2000, the Walker began to envision a multidisciplinary, global contemporary arts Internet portal, entitled the Virtual Arts Network, though it was not realized. Another pilot project — mnartists.org, developed with the McKnight Foundation and launched in 2001 — demonstrated the potential for connecting artists, arts organizations, and their audiences in an online environment. As a resource and hosting site for arts practitioners in Minnesota, mnartists.org in its first two years had 4,000 people registered and made available some 20,000 records, including digital images, sound, and moving-image files. In 2004, mnartists.org was awarded Best of the Web for E-Services from Museums and the Web, and was heralded for its breadth of content and active community exchange.
Not only has the Walker created new models for online initiatives, but it has also sought innovative ways of using digital technologies on-site, in its public spaces. New Media Initiatives works closely with the Walker’s Design and Education & Community Programs departments to develop new methods of visitor interaction using technology as a vehicle. In 2000, Antenna Design was commissioned to create an in-gallery display for an online exhibition. The resulting Art Entertainment Network gallery portal was a physical interface that combined wireless computing technology in a structure reminiscent of a revolving door. Other projects have led to public, multimedia presentations in the galleries through special installations, such as Raqs Media Collective and Atelier Bow-Wow’s electronic sarai for Translocations (2003) and Art on Call, a new model for the museum audio guide that visitors can access using cell phones.
Key among these interdepartmental collaborations was the commission of an interactive, multimedia table through an invited international competition. Designed by Marek Walczak, Jakob Segen, Michael McAllister, and Peter Kennard, Dialog was inbreeded in the exhibition Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life (2003) and later installed in the expanded Walker. The table has two stations that can serve several visitors simultaneously. Infrared video cameras mounted above it track participants’ hand movements, which act as the cursor for the interface. This gesture-recognition and video-tracking software allows several people to interact concurrently with a variety of information appearing on the surface of the table. While conventional computer kiosks allow single users to obtain information, the shared space of Dialog is designed to promote social interactions among visitors, while providing access to the Walker’s multidisciplinary collections and facilitating learning about the arts. Under the stewardship of Director Robin Dowden since 2003, New Media Initiatives demonstrates, with projects such as Dialog and others, its commitment to the ongoing investigation of new digital technologies as a means to assist, educate, and inspire visitors.