Dissertation Work, July Update, Part II

Last month I talked about my long-awaited research trip to Minneapolis. Today, I’ll share the work I’ve been doing with those documents since getting back to Williamsburg.

The first thing I needed to do was get all my documents organized. Since I was allowed to take pictures, I had hundreds of reference photos on my phone, and needed an efficient way to organize them while I still remembered the archive’s setup. Fortunately for me, I’ve been using Tropy to organize my archival photos for a while now, so I created a new project dedicated to the Walker Art Center. Once I uploaded my photos there, I labeled and grouped them in ways that mirrored the original archive. That way, once I get to the writing stage, I’ll remember both the location as well as the names of the documents.

After I sorted my photos, it was time to begin reading through them. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been learning more about both the origin of the Walker Art Center and the local organization that supervised it in conjunction with the WPA, the Minnesota Arts Council. While I already knew that the organization that would become the Walker Art Center, the Walker Art Galleries, predated the Community Art Center Project, going through these documents have provided new details and nuance to my initial understanding of the institution.

The Walker Art Galleries Building, finished 1927. The entire interior would be repainted and renovated prior to the Walker Art Center’s opening, with the gray galleries repainted in primary colors. The exterior would also get a modernized makeover. This building would be razed in the late 1960s to make way for the current structure. Image source: T.B. WALKER – St Louis Park Historical Society (slphistory.org)

I’ve also learned more about the site and why it was so desirable to the WPA. The building the Center used at the time (the current building dates from 1971 and was built on top of the one discussed here) was considered ideal because, despite the Moorish exterior, it was a modern building, having only been constructed in 1927 of poured concrete and containing a relatively undecorated interior. It was also a large space with a layout that suited educational programs by accommodating groups of visitors and enabling them to circulate easily between different sites or stations. The site itself had advantages because it was in the center of the business district at the time. Minneapolis was a good region overall because it had the resources of an urban area and was expected to grow into the future. Additionally, Daniel S. Defenbacher, Assistant Director of the Federal Art Project and first Director of the Walker Art Center, favored Minneapolis because he believed there were relatively few established art institutions there (beyond the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), enabling the Walker Art Center to implement a more experimental program without the judgment or conservatism of established museums and related institutions. Given the disagreements that Defenbacher and other FAP staff encountered with local historical societies, museums, and other institutions regarding programming (I’m thinking of Roswell, for example) I imagine he was excited for an opportunity to work with relatively little resistance from established cultural organizations.

I’ve also been learning about how the Walker Art Center conceptualized itself as an art center, and more specifically about the role of outreach exhibitions in its mission. From the first extant proposals, there’s a discussion of extension work, including the establishment of branch centers. The Walker Art Center proposal also mentions putting together exhibitions with the express purpose of sending them to schools and other institutions in the area. Since the Walker Art Galleries had a permanent collection, the Center envisioned circulating it to the public in its shows, which it would during the first years of its existence (this collection would ultimately get deaccessioned due to a combination of ongoing provenance research, and the Center’s shift toward contemporary art as its main collecting focus). So from the beginning, the Center envisioned extension work as being an important part of its operations, with its educational programs circulating both outside and inside the building.

Jewelry exhibition, ca. 1941. Shows like these paired objects from the Walker Art Gallery collections, in this instance jewelry, with extension didactic texts and innovative exhibition design in terms of typeface and graphics. Image source: The Walker Art Center Archives.

Although the archives don’t include checklists for these circulating exhibitions, I’ve still managed to learn more about the shows. The Walker Art Center envisioned three types of traveling exhibitions as part of its extension program. What’s interesting about these exhibitions is that it shows the extension program was designed to engage viewers in a variety of ways, depending on their respective needs or interests. The three groups included the following:

  • Traveling exhibitions featuring collections objects and didactic texts: this was the deluxe model, with recipients gaining access to not only original collections objects, but also the interpretive text, installation, and design as conveyed through the Walker Art Center’s staff.
  • Traveling exhibitions featuring reproductions only: intended for schools, these didactic panels basically served as an Art History 101 course. One exhibit discussed Egyptian art, for instance, while another focused on Gothic art, and so on.
  • Collections objects without extensive label text or exhibition design: intended to serve a more social than educational function, these shows were less interpretive exhibitions than selections of collections objects available for display at social clubs and meetings. The Walker Art Center explicitly described this category as “less advanced” than the first two, given the lack of interpretive material.

I’ve also been learning more about the frustrations the Walker Art Center experienced regarding its relationship with the WPA. Basically, the issue wasn’t so much a disagreement in programming as it was the lack of support to implement those initiatives There wasn’t enough money, something that had become an issue as the WPA’s annual budget decreased. But there was another, fundamental issue regarding the appointment of staff. Because the WPA focused on providing as many jobs as possible, roles were apparently split among multiple personnel. It’s one of the reasons why the staff at the Walker Art Center was so large during the WPA era; there were a lot of part-time people there. Additionally, the Walker Art Center didn’t believe it had enough museum-trained people to operate the center effectively, with most of its workers having different backgrounds (this point is particularly interesting to me in light of the current moment. Requisites for advanced degrees in museum studies and related fields have been cited as forms of gatekeeping when it comes to museum employment and representation). High turnover also meant that the Center was spending a lot of energy on training instead of implementing programs. These factors seem to be the main reasons for the Center’s frustration.

In short, I’ve been learning a lot about the Walker Art Center and how it operated, and I’ll undoubtedly continue to learn more as I finish up looking over the documents. After years of waiting and planning, it’s so nice to finally get into these archives in earnest.

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