Traditionally, art museum websites have been where you go to get information about the museum: its collection, its exhibitions, its public programs and so on — and that’s it. Art museum websites typically pretend that the museum is an island unto itself. Sometimes parts of museum websites have gone beyond their institution’s walls — SFMOMA’s eclectic and fascinating Open Space blog occasionally does this, for example — but not often.
The new Walker website rejects that approach by presenting the Walker as both a physical and a virtual community hub — and it defines its community appropriately broadly, as both the art world and the Walker’s home state of Minnesota. With its audience thus defined, the new website promises to provide not just information about the Walker, but information about art and artists wherever they are, with an special and appropriate focus on its home region. That’s smart. Next up: We’ll see how the website delivers on that promise.
As plenty of other people have noticed, another striking element of the design is how much the Walker’s website looks like a newspaper or magazine website. It remains to be see how journalistic the Walker’s site will be. In her introduction to the new site, Walker director Olga Viso promised journalism, and in an insightful interview with Freshandnew.org, Walker website editor Paul Schmelzer detailed the Walker’s editorial team. However, Schmelzer did not include in his list a dedicated reporter or critic. (Here’s hoping that the Walker’s curatorial team reviews local and national exhibitions for walkerart.org.) Merely linking to other sites is not journalism — at best that’s informative, and at worst it’s theft-by-aggregation. I’m curious to see if, how and on what walkerart.org will report.
There are two reasons for optimism: In recent years the Walker has been more involved in both policy and political engagement than almost any other American art museum. It’s been engaged with local arts-related public policy issues and it made a splash during the 2008 GOP convention, which was held in nearby St. Paul. Secondly, Schmelzer is an award-winning journalist who has worked at both the local and national levels. In part because of Schmelzer, no American art museum is more prepared to produce journalism than is the Walker. (Disclosure: I’ve known Paul since his first stint at the Walker and we’ve had beers together.)
Also: How probative will the Walker site be about its own institution, which dominates the presentation of contemporary art in a huge section of the country? (Example: Would walkerart.org note that the Walker passed on “Hide/Seek” before its director aggressively condemned the way the show was treated?) We’ll see. I suspect that the Walker will know readers aren’t stupid and that delivering PR disguised as journalism will ultimately damage the institution’s credibility.
In a related story, the Walker’s new site reminded me of a minor debacle in which I was the protagonist: A couple years ago the art museum publishing industry association invited me to give a talk at its annual meeting. I talked about how traditional art journalism was in a rapid and likely inescapable decline and that museum publishers should begin to embrace journalistic functions, especially on their websites.
In my presentation, I tried to demonstrate how sports leagues, facing similar but less drastic declines in the coverage they received from newspapers and magazines, assigned journalistic functions to their own websites and related media platforms. Not only did my talk bomb, as I left the hotel that afternoon I overheard more than a few attendees talk about how I didn’t understand what museum publishers do.
Well, I hope that art museums are paying attention to what one of their own is doing. The Walker’s web site has positioned itself to be the most important art museum website in America — and depending on its content/reporting operation, it could become a lot more important than that.