This article also appears on the Museum Nerd blog.
The Walker Art Center’s new website, www.walkerart.org, launched December 1, represents the most forward-thinking best practices in the museum field today. If you have even the slightest interest in contemporary art and culture, you’ll want to bookmark the website regardless of whether you live in Minneapolis, Minnetonka, or Mumbai. Before I jump into the specifics of the site, let’s take a look at how a medium-sized museum in the middle of a great, but relatively remote, city has leapt (in my estimation) to the forefront of the entire museum field.
Women Directors with Cojones
The Walker Art Center had long been on my radar before I’d even visited. This image of former director Kathy Halbreich sporting a bad-ass leather jacket became iconic in my mind as the image of a director who directs. Toward the end of her 16+ years at the Walker, Halbreich led the museum through a major renovation that brought it a lot of attention and press. Halbreich left the museum at the height of this publicity to join MoMA as an associate director, where she’s unfortunately a bit less visible.
On the Walker’s blog, in an August 2007 farewell letter to Halbreich, Paul Schmelzer (the editor of the new website) described Halbreich’s implementation of “a new Walker mission statement that emphasizes the engagement of both artists and audiences and a deeper understanding of society on individual, community, and global levels.” This legacy lives on in another bad-ass woman. Contrary to what science might lead you to believe, the current Walker director, Olga Viso, has bigger balls than any other director out there! She’s decentralized power in a move that many museum higher-ups would be terrified of trying. A lot of top museums are still clinging to their authority, not just about the art that they collect and show, but in their implicit field of expertise. This is reflected on websites that don’t allow comments and interactions from outsiders aside from blogs buried several clicks off the home page.
The Walker Gains Power by Yielding Power
The secret weapon here is that this move to include content from unaffiliated sources on the Walker’s website will actually give the Walker more—and more lasting—power. The “Idea Hub” Olga Viso describes positions the Walker as the locus of the smartest discourse about the content areas that are central to its mission.
This Is the Future of Museums
Of course actually seeing the art in person is an irreplaceable experience. No one, (except for some fear-mongering, recalcitrant, reactionary higher-ups and board members), is suggesting that a strong, institutional web presence will replace the experience of going to see artworks in person. But many completely reasonable museum people still do ask the question, “Will your tweets get us more visitors?”
The Walker’s website suggests a future in which visitorship is not indisputably the most important thing. Many funders still need to catch up to the idea that the museum can serve members of the public without bringing them through the doors of the “brick and mortar” museum. Before you cry foul… I know that many museums directors who may appear to be resting on their laurels where the web is concerned, are actually hampered by misinformed funders who aren’t comfortable supporting the most visionary projects.
Folks agree that the Walker’s new website is a “game changer” for the following reasons:
- It is the first major museum website with an editorial focus.
- It is the first major museum website to feature previews of articles from non-affiliated sources on their home page. See the section: “Art News from Elsewhere.”
- The articles include pieces from disparate sources including lesser-known blogs like Hyperallergic (for which I’ve written the occasional piece) right next to the New York Times.
The Walker Art Center. Courtesy Walker Art Center.
Taking a Page from the Startup Playbook: The Walker Pivots
The Walker has made a power move. They’ve “pivoted,” exchanging one set of advantages for a different set. Let me explain. The Walker has long been seen as an important place for contemporary art. They’ve staged groundbreaking exhibitions that have traveled far and wide. They’ve also had a rich programming history.
Up until now, on their website and elsewhere, what the Walker was doing was always central and was broadcast outward to spark new conversations about the art and ideas around it. This is the model that most museums follow on the web. While the Walker will no doubt continue to do these things, they are the first major museum to see the future. Museums no longer need to think of their stakeholders as the people who come through the door. The Walker has positioned themselves at the center of the global conversation about contemporary art. By placing the content of others (as well as excellent editorial content of their own) right there on the homepage, they’ve created a website you want to go to if you have any interest in contemporary art, regardless of whether you’ll ever visit the museum. They’re not just positioning themselves as an arbiter of taste (the connoisseurship thing has long been in every art museum’s bailiwick): the Walker is also placing themselves at the center of the conversation that their mission is all about.
I’ve long been saying that museums need to realize they can directly fulfill their missions (especially the educational aspect of those missions) through social media. Museums have often been very slow to catch on to this, and only certain places, exemplified by SFMOMA and the Brooklyn Museum, have been using social media in this manner rather than primarily for marketing. We all read those marketing tweets all the time, and if you’re not in the city, why the heck do you want to know that members get a special discount in the gift shop when they visit the museum?!
Now I see a model for using the museum website to directly fulfill the institution’s mission, but for a global audience and a globally, digitally connected constituency. I imagine it won’t be long before the Walker Art Center starts seeing donations from people who’ve never visited the museum and have no immediate plans to do so.