The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
The Minneapolis-based Walker Art Center, an international hub for cutting-edge performing arts
Philip Bither
Photo: Kyoko Yoshida

The Schubert Club, established in 1882 in Saint. Paul, MN, is a non-profit arts organization that presents concert series annually, operates a Museum of Musical Instruments, and provides various programs to promote classical music.
Please introduce some of the highlights of this season in the context of local/national interface and the participations of local artists and community.
    The season’s opening, Cunningham’s “Ocean” that we produced in a granite quarry needed 150 classically trained instrumentalists. We built the stage on the floor of the quarry an hour and a half north of the Twin Cities. Cunningham is a world class artist, but it involved musicians drawn from all over the state of Minnesota playing a John Cage inspired original score. It involved the quarry workers, as well as the people of St. Cloud, and we partnered with the Northrop Auditorium of the University of Minnesota, the College of St. Benedicts and other organizations in the state.
    Eiko and Koma were here for a three-week developmental residency. They needed a musician doing a certain kind of Indonesian music. I put them in touch with a Gamelan player via the Shubert Club (*9) in Saint Paul. They were thrilled and ended up having him as a collaborator on the project.
    The Builder’s Association, which is another big production residency, interviewed a number of local immigrant community members and integrated that into the visual and aural designs of the work. They also had a website, which we set up at community centers throughout the Twin Cities, where people could record their own stories. These were also integrated into the theater work.
    A project by a legendary jazz figure, Yusef Lateef, in collaboration with a local musician, Douglas Ewart who’s nationally known started when Douglas came to me one day and said that his dream is to do a project with Yusef.
    “Choreographers’ Evening” has served as the major gathering for the Twin Cities dance community. This is a platform of all local choreographers that’s curated this year by a locally based choreographer, Sally Rousse.
    Thus, many of our projects have local / national interface. It shows how much our work has grown. It’s also making some of the most interesting and relevant feelings for audience here.

Do you think that the trend of local/national interface and the audience desire to participate in the process of arts making have to do with the growth in the Internet?
    Definitely, because the Internet is all about the ownership of content and participatory and communicative interaction. I think that it is also affecting the creative process of contemporary forms of live performances, and will affect the more traditional forms in the coming decade or two. But the Walker’s role is to be ahead of the time and try to adopt and embrace these trends. Even if we fail sometimes, we want to continue to function as a kind of R & D engine for the performing arts in the country.

Do you also conduct community outreach programs in a conventional sense such as workshops and master classes?
    We have an award winning wonderful education department that has six different departments within, and a number of projects that I just mentioned, like the Builder’s Association having web stations in community centers, were all in collaboration with our education department. They helped us reach out and connect with people. The education program also consistently runs wonderful tours. These are usually through galleries, but some of them are evolving through performing arts now too. It will connect the three program departments and weave the ideas and theme together. For example, the tour guide will talk not just about the art work in the galleries, but the works of the theater maker or the performance artists who will be performing at the theater next month.
    There is also a youth education program, which is actively involved with hundreds of schools in our region. Often, it’s a hands-on in arts classes, or it’s tours to the Walker, or it’s combined with our web project, “Arts Connected”, and giving online resources about modern art pieces to children. There are also the public programs out of education department. They sponsor a lot of key speakers, thinkers and writers around art, cultural and other social issues that they bring in on a consistent basis. This includes an important series around the design trends. There’s also just a “communities program” within education that’s really dedicated fully to finding new ways to make connections with other partners outside of the Walker. These are not other arts organizations necessarily but community organizations and collaborative neighborhood organizations who otherwise might not normally find their way to the Walker.
    One of the key roles of the education department is interpretation and to help frame for the public the work that we are showing or presenting. They write didactics, create education guides and set up education tours, etc. Historically, most of their work has been for the art works in the galleries but they are increasingly doing similar interpretation for the performing artists.

Have you seen an increase in attendance as a result of community outreach and the relevance of the programs?
    I think that it’s an interesting dynamic because we’ve retained very consistently over the past 15 or 20 years unusually large audience for a contemporary arts center compared to others around the country. But we also do very challenging work, so, it’s not always easy to get people interested in things that they don’t know about, or don’t know what to call. Our first priority is committed to the mission of supporting artists of innovative forms and challenging work. From this starting point we develop a structure of education, residency and community activities around the work to bring people to it and to support it. We’re always setting a very high bar and major challenges for ourselves because we take on the most difficult work and the most difficult-to-explain artwork. But, that being said, we average 70 to 80% attendance at all of our performances, and many of them sell out.
    Our educational programs are very well attended. The education department runs a program called Free Thursdays. Every Thursday evening between 5pm and 9pm the admission to the Walker is gratis and there are special programs, such as lectures, performances and music and gallery tours that attract thousands of people. Many young people are here every Thursday night just to be part of the Walker experience, and that’s been a very successful program. Then, we do special programs like “Rock the Garden” where we bring innovative rock bands to the Sculpture Garden and up to eight thousand people can turn out. A lot of those people then turn into Walker members. So, I think we have effective strategies to continue to have a broad circle of people interested in what we’re doing.
| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |