The Way Beyond Art: Wider White Space: Walker Without Walker

March 10, 2011 to March 30, 2011

The exhibition, Walker Without Walker, is an examination of design within the world of fine art—or more specifically, the in-house design studio of Minneapolis's Walker Art Center, one of the leading contemporary art museums in the country. Over the years, the Walker's Graphic Design Studio has staked its claim at the forefront of institutional design, rejecting any monolithic notions of conventional aesthetics and instead favoring a more dynamic and flexible approach.

The challenge, then, for this exhibition was trying to parse the identity of a studio that so completely embodies the Walker's own diverse and expansive programming. We examined the materials and considered what would happen if any evidence of "art" was taken away from the designed matter—essentially, subtracting the Walker museum from the Walker studio. The result is an overwhelming graphic array that captures the multivalent applications of the Walker's design. As the studio's work is so challenging to look at comprehensively, both due to its prolificacy and commitment to versatile Modernist practices, we wanted to reflect that experience in this presentation.

The wall panels created specifically for this display present the graphic work of the studio, minus any image pertaining to the museum. These pop-out panels play with the color, texture, and dimensionality of the physical pieces that the Walker Art studio produces. The eliminated images have been placed in the vitrines, in piles, mimicking the act of physically removing image from graphic work.

Cuurated by Caryn Kesler, Julie Mendez, Heidi Meredith and Edgardo Sanchez

An Interview with Emmet Byrne, Walker Art Center's Design Director

Curators: How would you define/describe the design studio's role in relationship to the museum as a whole?

Emmet Byrne: Design has had a long history at the Walker as a discipline we both practice and present. Before it was known as "design," it was known as "everyday art." The result of this history and duel-nature affords the design a good amount of respect within the institution. Another interesting factor is that the design department in fact includes designers, editors, and photographers, and exists parallel to the marketing department when serving clients. This results in an interesting system of checks and balances between design and marketing --- over the years since I have worked here I have seen that relationship shift and sometimes become contentious --- but I sometimes think this is an ideal situation, and that working in pure harmony might equate to being complacent. But maybe not. The design department also includes the Walker's publishing program, which is in the process of shifting from simply books to other media as well, including online. We have a great New Media department and we are coming to work more and more closely with them. Our designers talk with the clients (curators, programmers) from the beginning of a project, concept it out, design it, print it, everything.

One of the most defining characteristics of an in-house studio is the fact that you live with the consequences of your work --- every time we try something a bit crazy that doesn't pan out, the client that we disappointed is sitting right next to us. This creates an interesting sort of push and pull since we are in constant contact with our clients, and share the same goals, and sometimes it feels like a big organism breathing in and out --- as the rest of the institution shifts, so do we. When the economy suffered and our clients became more conservative with their marketing ideas, so did we.

C: What is the philosophy of the Walker Art Center? How does it manifest in your studio work?

EB: Our mission: The Walker Art Center is a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences. Focusing on the visual, performing, and media arts of our time, the Walker takes a global, multidisciplinary, and diverse approach to the creation, presentation, interpretation, collection, and preservation of art. Walker programs examine the questions that shape and inspire us as individuals, cultures, and communities.

As far as the studio, it's hard to say that we have any one philosophy, especially since the design studio has been around for at least 50 years, and so many new designers come in and out every year --- every time we hire a new design fellow we think of it in terms of commissioning a year-long body of work, and bringing in a new philosophy to the studio to shake it up. Rather than a philosophy I would say that we have a set of circumstances, a very real set of constraints AKA the museum. Do you need a philosophy when you have been working on one giant project for 50 years? Is there a philosophy inherent in representing a contemporary art museum? I think our philosophy can be summed up in the fundamental contradiction of what we do: part of our mission at the Walker is to bring contemporary art (difficult, challenging, provocative) to a broader audience --- to "broaden, deepen, and diversify" our audience --- the "product" we're selling is often intended to offend, to shock, to bore, to defy interpretation. (That's a whole other conversation --- trying to provide context to artwork that refuses interpretation, and relies on opacity.) We are trying to market something alien to an often skeptical audience --- do the same design strategies that a small gallery would employ to speak to their audience work for us? The answer becomes complex and relies on marketing with certain design strategies to smaller audiences, and other strategies to broader audiences, but this fragmentation makes it hard to enjoy any one philosophy. Our philosophy might be in understanding the context of when design can be challenging --- we often err on the side of convention, for sure. But this is where it becomes interesting --- where is the fun in preaching to the choir? This question of context has brought us to constantly ask new questions about how we communicate, and recently has led us to the idea that the institution is actually one big content producer. Our website redesign will soon reflect this, and in the process of understanding our online audience to be just as valid as our physical audience, we will be putting more effort into online publishing. We have finally transitioned our bi-monthly members publication into something resembling a magazine, and not a newsletter like it was before.

C: How do you approach aesthetic decisions when producing/curating materials for the museum? What kind of considerations do you have to make in marketing both the Walker and the art?

EB: I kind of answered some of that above, but in general we believe in design that engages the viewer in a similar way to how art can engage a viewer---it can be smart, it can slow you down, it can be ambiguous, it can be simple, it can operate with its own logic. In fact, almost every marketing piece at the Walker has a unique design, which has always been our "brand."

C: What's your take on the studio's ranging aesthetic? If we look beyond the Art Center itself as the obvious element that ties the studio's work together, what would you consider the fundamental link in everything the design studio produces?

EB: Well, again this comes back to our reality which is the art center.... we often have amazing imagery/artwork to use. The Walker is a very visual culture and has a lot of respect for imagery. For example, we are not usually allowed to crop artwork, distort it, or put type on top of it. This has resulted in particular type/image strategies over the years that are kind of predictably Walker. Of course, there is a hierarchy to even imagery usage --- images of film and performing arts are fine to distort, crop, whatever. Anyhow---I'd rather hear how someone else would describe our aesthetic. Also, are we talking about right now, or the past 50 years? Because it is always changing.

C: The Walker design studio is situated in a contemporary art museum and there are many people who would make the distinction between design and fine art. How would you respond to that assertion and do you ever experience any of that tension while representing the museum?

EB: It's an age old question, and it's hard not to talk yourself into circles trying to answer it. Sometimes I think about how "design" sounds like a verb, and "art" always sounds like a noun. I would actually be interested in reading about the etymology of the word "design" and when it started becoming used as a noun as well.

Within any institution there will be hierarchies that express themselves through the institutional language --- since we have people designated as "curators", the non-curators refrain from saying that we "curated" this or that. Since we have fine art in the galleries, we won't call any of our design fine art? We present design in the galleries just as we would art (graphic design, product design) so in effect it is treated the same, but the distinctions are useful. (One thing that is interesting is the curatorial model for design shows --- very often we present it in a more didactic, pedagogical context than typical art shows --- design shows require more reading in general.) We hire fellows who work all hours of night, laboring over their creations, as an artist would. We are also a multidisciplinary institution so we present film, performance, music, literature, design, architecture, and everything in between --- we've had lectures on time travel and wartime journalism and Chinese economics and insects. All creative endeavors are explored and overlap.

For me, calling something art implies transcending reality. Design implies embracing reality. It's fun to do both, from either side.

An Interview with Dante Carlos, Senior Designer at the Walker

C: How would you define/describe the design studio's role in relationship to the museum as a whole?

Dante Carlos: We're sort of a kitchen sink-type of operation here. Because we deal with all departments at the Walker on a day-to-day basis as an in-house design studio, we do many things. We're very much involved with the institution at different scales, from the smallest object labels, to exhibition graphics, to marketing campaigns. We're also the life of the party here.

C: What is the philosophy of the Walker Art Center? How does it manifest in your studio work?

DC: Our institutional mission is a multidisciplinary and global approach to presenting contemporary art in all of its different forms, and to provide opportunities for people to experience and discuss those forms. I think how we play into that mission is creating materials that help frame the context of an exhibition, set up a particular tone, and to provide different ways of accessing that information; we produce interpretive materials such as gallery guides or exhibition catalogues, and we also make marketing pieces to inform the public about the goings on here at the Walker.

C: How do you approach aesthetic decisions when producing/curating materials for the museum?

DC: What kind of considerations do you have to make in marketing both the Walker and the art?
It really depends on the project and the supporting materials we have for it. Sometimes we get great images and we don't have to do too much work to sell the event or program. And sometimes we get less than great assets and we have to figure out how to make it all work. The analogy I use sometimes is the idea of a painting and a frame: if a painting is compelling and interesting enough by itself, it doesn't need a fancy frame to finish it off—in fact, it might even be distracting. In the case of a bad painting, that's when we pull out the big rococo frame to add or heighten interest. In the same way, content that is amazing usually needs little to no intervention by the designer to sell itself; design should be used in those cases where you need to tart up some bad content, or make the best with limited resources.

C: What's your take on the studio's ranging aesthetic? If we look beyond the Art Center itself as the obvious element that ties the studio's work together, what would you consider the fundamental link in everything the design studio produces?

DC: I think the main link that ties everything together is the fact that we don't have anything that links everything together.

The Walker Art Center definitely has an institutional voice and mission, and we use that sort of visual language when we're talking about ourselves in a particular context. But really, I feel like we're more of a collection of individuals who come up with their own unique programs and events and we in the design department, treat them on a case by case basis, rather than employing an over-arching Walker identity system. Philosophically, I think our practice reflect this, and encourages us to be weird, quirky, queer even whenever we can, from our oblique references, language, and methods of production. I think the variety in the materials that we produce help to reinforce the fact we have a myriad of programs here.

C: The Walker design studio is situated in a contemporary art museum and there are many people who would make the distinction between design and fine art. How would you respond to that assertion and do you ever experience any of that tension while representing the museum?

DC: I think its more interesting to look at the relationship between the two, rather than attempt to dissect any sort of distinction between design and contemporary art. Some designers, such as Daniel Eatock (who was a Walker fellow a few years ago), have migrated from client-based graphic design to more of a studio practice, while some artists like Paul Chan have used the tools of our trade like type design in their own work. Both offer a lot of formal and conceptual ideas that complement each other for sure, and I think that is the most important thing in examining that relationship. If asked, I'd probably say either one would be boring and inert with out the other: design needs content, and content (whether an exhibition or a program) needs a vehicle for people to access it.