Note: A beautifully illustrated version of this post is now on Artlog here.
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 little look at how a medium-sized museum in the middle of a great, but relatively remote, city has leapt (in my estimation) to the absolute 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 (who’s the editor of the new website*) cited that she had implemented, “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, as 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?”
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 ever having them walk through the doors of the “bricks 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 are agreeing 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 nonaffiliated 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 there next to The New York Times.
Taking a Page from the “Start-up” 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 content of others (as well as excellent editorial content of their own) right there on their 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 Brooklyn Museum, have been using social media in this manner and not 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 best practices for using the museum website to directly fulfill its mission, but for a global audience and a globally, digitally connected constituency. I imagine it won’t be long before Walker Art Center starts seeing donations from people who’ve never visited the museum and have no immediate plans to do so.
*Paul asked me to change the original language which misstated that he “spearheaded” the new website. Paul’s modest. He went on in the email to say, “This isn’t really true. The Walker’s new media team has been working on this for a long time, and I was just brought on in mid-September, so I can’t take credit for the design. I don’t really design stuff, as my blog shows!“
This is truly a call to museums globally to step up their social media game beyond marketing. The museum experience is no longer defined by the physical visit. Visitors with no other access than the internet can be reached with great online educational programs, editorial comment and articles from unaffiliated sources on the homepage.
I do an extensive amount of research for the articles I write, and it is rare to find a museum with commentary beyond the usual Wiki page information. Some European museums have expanded a bit in this area, but continuity and translation are problems they still need to overcome.
An exciting future awaits the Walker Art Center, and all the other museums poised on the cutting edge of this model. A digitally connected constituency should be every Museum Director’s dream.
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For the future of museum websites, I’d expect it to be built responsively to work on mobile, but no I just get the same old experience as that of computer users. This is a massive failing when the number of people using mobile devices to browse the web is surging and a real missed opportunity.
Did you catch Nate Solas’s comment? I wonder if the mobile is released now.
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Thanks for putting this change at the Walker into the context of a larger discussion of museum authority and global presence.
Thanks for this very good analysis. A couple ideas I’d like to add:
1) It seems to me that museum education and communication/marketing efforts maybe ought to be more connected generally. Increasing a person’s knowledge about a subject tends to increase their interest in it, and increased interest in a topic ought to improve attendance and support for museums dedicated to it. Of course, that’s not an easy case to quantify and sell.
2) My background is in publishing, so I’m surprised that museum websites allowing commenting isn’t a common thing. I’m not certain that it will prove to be of great value–open comments are a hit-or-miss thing, even once you moderate out the obvious spam. But I’m intrigued, and a museum website seems a likely candidate to achieve a good signal-to-noise ratio.
@Jim – we were *this* close to launching with mobile but it was too rough. Just got it rolled out the door this morning — let us know how it looks!
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Great review and the museum companion to this recent NY Times piece by Thomas Friedman about the revolutionary political changes going on around the world:
[We are seeing] what Mark Mykleby . . . calls “the democratization of expectations” — the expectation that all individuals should be able to participate in shaping their own career, citizenship and future . . . .