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Shannon Gibney attended the public forum held by the Walker Art Center on its civic engagement initiative; here's her take on what happened. Bring your own ideas to the table in the mnartists.org on-line forum (see link at foot of article).
By Shannon Gibney
June 28, 2005

Sometimes, you can’t see the battlefield for the Matthew Barney installation.

This was the pearl of wisdom that tapped my cranium as I walked out of the Walker Art Center’s recent forum on art and civic engagement. The institution received a $65,000 grant from the Bush Foundation in 2003 to explore the ways in which local communities engage with the museum, and thereafter, reassess their approach and programming if necessary.

The project yielded a colorful, if unwieldy map, which Walker staff said they hoped community members and stakeholders would be able to use in their work connecting art, artists, and ordinary people. A sidebar on the map reads: “This knowledge map incorporates national field research about art and civic engagement, conversations with artists and colleagues, and insights drawn from interviews with 30 Twin Cities community activists and leaders. It attempts to bridge two complex ideas – the town square and civic engagement – and to better define what potential these concepts hold for Walker programmers and artists.

“The map proposes four major roles that art, artists, and cultural programs can play in creating a Walker Town Square experience and a spectrum of activities that allow for genuine civic involvement by participants. The intent is to invite curators and programmers to consider open-ended questions that will lead the Walker into a more socially conscious approach to planning events, exhibitions, and hands-on learning experiences.”

The 30 “community leaders and artists,” as well as a few interlopers like myself, were invited to view the physical fruits of the initiative’s labor on April 12 in one of the Walker’s beautiful meeting rooms – featuring a breathtaking view of the Minneapolis skyline and plenty of incongruous surfaces. As participants unfolded the double-sided, huge map, they balked at its uh..shall we say...postmodern design.

“It’s not a map at all,” said one participant, a public policy expert at the U of M. “First of all, a map would have a key, and would connect actual things together – not just ideas like ‘container, convener, connector and catalyst.’”

She went on to say that she actually found the document, and the project itself in fact, a disappointment. “I would have expected that you would have been very specific about what you mean exactly by the term ‘civic engagement.’ That is a term that I always scold my graduate students for using too loosely. When I ask them what they mean by it, they usually have nothing to say. Large institutions and corporations usually use ‘civic engagement’ to refer to something that is already going on at a grassroots, ground level in communities, and then appropriate it.’”

This was an idea that participants – ranging from Minneapolis mayoral staff to Minnesota State Arts Board executives to independent artists – wanted to examine. “Is this map and project about connecting individuals to what’s shown here, or is it about connecting what’s shown here to the community?” asked one man.

The answer? Well, we’re actually looking at it a little differently...

“This community just invested $125 million in this new building, so the community needs to be clear on what the Walker’s role is in civic engagement is,” said a business executive. “I would like to see where the Walker’s biggest commitment lies.”

The only coherent answer I heard to this question was something like, local communities value art very much, and so does the Walker, so we are committed to working with the community to continue to develop and showcase the highest quality art.

When yours truly stated that, since we had been hearing so much about what the (incredibly nebulous) “community” values were, it would perhaps be illuminating to hear what the Walker’s values were, I was swiftly and efficiently dispatched. “We have them,” a Walker executive assured me before going on about the various museum accolades. “I’ll send them to you after the meeting.”

Three weeks later, I received an envelope which contained a photocopy of what I assume must be the Walker’s official values. I was so glad that the Walker executive had taken the time and contributed paper to such an illuminating list:

  • Innovation: We are a living laboratory of artistic risk and experimentation

  • Partnership: We value communication and collaboration in and across departments and with other institutions

  • Civic Commitment: Our programs, staff and board contribute to the vitality of our local and global communities.

  • Diversity: The diversity of our audiences, partnerships, staff and board is critical to fulfilling our mission.

  • Stewardship: We are irreproachable stewards of our permanent collection as a public record of creative expression in our time.

Questions, anyone?

Then I brought up an issue that threatened to split apart my very own MFA class not so long ago: “art for art’s sake” vs. “political art.” I asked if the Walker, in its role as a contemporary art museum that tends to favor a postmodern aesthetic, ever feels that it is leaving historically marginalized communities (particularly local communities of color), whose art is often deeply political and “issues-based,” in the dust.

Although they may showcase world-renowned artists of color like Kara Walker and Bill T. Jones, the museum hardly ever connects these exhibits and the issues they tackle to local artists and communities of color. Nor do these concerns trickle down to the Walker’s institutional, everyday organizational management and global curatorial approach, as far as I can tell.

As the Walker exec considered my question, I felt myself become that crazy Black woman in the room.

This isn’t a blue state/red state project or institution, the Walker exec assured me. We’re trying to get beyond politics into the realm of art.

I was thinking about whiteness studies, globalization, class privilege, and every single White guy in my MFA program who insisted that he just wanted to make a piece of art – it’s not political.

I wanted to ask the Walker exec to take me to the place where making art and reproducing your worldview is apolitical and normative. It sounded like a nice – albeit bland – place to visit.

Hey, wait! I told myself. You’re already here. You don’t even have to leave the room.


mnartists.org is a project of the Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation; opinions expressed here are not those of the McKnight Foundation or the Walker Art Center but are those of the authors of the articles.

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