Director Spotlight: Mary Ceruti (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis) on Education

“How do museums produce knowledge and meaning in dialogue with their constituencies, rather than simply acting as presenters?”

The Walker Art Center began its life in the home of lumber baron T.B. Walker, who opened his art collection to the public there in 1879. In the 1940s, the museum began to focus modern art; it is now renowned for its multidisciplinary contemporary art program. Mary Ceruti, for twenty years the executive director and chief curator of SculptureCenter in Long Island City, New York, became the Walker’s executive director this past January.

In this evolved, and still evolving, cultural landscape, we need to rethink how institutions—including museums—exist within their communities. I can’t tell you what the Walker is going to look like in five or ten years. But I do know that increasingly, communities have different expectations of their institutions, and that museums have not been quick enough to ask what those expectations are, or how best to address them. We need to do this with great focus and rigor, lest we become irrelevant.

And of course, there are a growing number of artists asking, how can art help us reimagine a better world? For contemporary art institutions, one of our challenges is to make sure that we find the artists who are asking that question in interesting ways. And, then, institutionally, we have to support them, which may require new ways of working, whether it be breaking down departmental territories or thinking differently about what an exhibition timeline looks like.

At SculptureCenter, one of my favorite projects was our exhibition of sculptures by the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (Congolese Plantation Workers Art League or CATPC), a group of Congolese artists who insert their work into the global art market in a way that asks important questions about cultural and physical labor and capital. Just recently, our colleagues at the Minneapolis Institute of Art opened “Hearts of Our People,” a show of work by Native American women artists. The exhibition is an example of how museums might involve communities, not just as audiences but as partners.

Different cultures have different approaches to knowledge, and art is a kind of knowledge. So, how do we as institutions become more truly multicultural? How do museums produce knowledge and meaning in dialogue with their constituencies, rather than simply acting as presenters? At larger institutions, such as the Walker, education plays a greater role in this process than at smaller, more niche spaces like the SculptureCenter.

An important part of education, I believe, is giving up some of one’s authority. We, meaning the people who work at these institutions, have expertise. We have a certain reservoir of knowledge based on all the time we have spent looking at and talking about art. That said, artists are always throwing us curveballs. They are continually asking questions that we haven’t asked before, providing a different lens through which to see the world.

We are ourselves always learning. Some of the work I’ve come to love the best is the work that most perplexed me when I first saw it. I think a lot of us feel that way. It’s what makes us want go back and look at it and spend more time with it, and I believe that we can convey our own curiosity about it to our audiences. It’s not that didactics shouldn’t play a role, but instead of telling people what an object, or a film, or a performance is about or why they should like it, we can present it as a proposition that we are all figuring out together.

I’ve been here for only a few months but what I’m already loving about the Twin Cities, and why the Walker has been able to do what they’ve been doing for so long, is that the audience is, and historically has been, very welcoming of new ideas, and new ideas that come from other places. I think that has enabled the Walker to have a forward-thinking and internationalist perspective about art from an earlier moment than a great many other institutions.

The Walker has a solid reputation going back more than 75 years for supporting interdisciplinary work as it happens. And it has a great collection. One of my goals is to use that collection to contextualize work being presented now.

The Walker’s holdings comprise about 15,000 objects. That’s not a lot compared to some other museums, but the works are first-rate. The majority of them are postwar, but there are also some pieces from earlier in the 20th century. Like many collections, the Walker’s was started in the 19th century by a wealthy individual. But in the 1970s the museum decided that it held works that didn’t accord with their mission to present contemporary art. They strategically deaccessioned some artworks and created an acquisitions endowment to buy new ones. In light of recent conversations about deaccessioning, I think the Walker approached it in a really smart way, in order to create a collection that was more defined and cohesive.

These objects were acquired at particular moments in time and it is really important for us not to erase or forget that. On the other hand, there are all sorts of ways to contextualize a work besides historically and to make connections between objects from different times. We just closed a show called “The Body Electric,” which looked at multiple generations of artists using screen technologies to explore ideas about identity. It included work from the 1960s and ’70s by artists such as Shigeko Kubota, Nam June Paik, Joan Jonas, and Lynn Hershman Leeson and recent work by current artists like Martine Syms and Trisha Baga. The Walker borrowed some pieces for the show, but almost all the historical works came from its collection. It was a great way to bring them into conversations that we are having at this moment.

We definitely have to be open about what is working and not working. Several years ago, the Walker was awarded a large multiyear grant by the Mellon Foundation. The Mellon was particularly interested in performance works in the museum setting. We’ve commissioned and presented a series of projects—most recently, a three-part performance piece by artist Faye Driscoll. This summer, we’ll be bringing in an outside evaluator to talk to the artists that we worked with, the staff, and members of the community about what worked wildly well and where we struggled.

You cannot just move blindly forward when presenting new art. You have to think about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. I and my colleagues in the field need to be responsible to each other in sifting through these questions and sharing with each other what we’re learning in these processes.