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The successful three-pronged initiative, which has attracted unprecedented numbers of low-income families, people of color and teenagers to the Walker Art Center, has been a primary focus of museum director Kathy Halbreich's 10-year tenure.
Halbreich's particular commitment to teenagers, who have a space and a budget of their own within the museum, grows out of her own youthful fascination with museums and her conviction that young audiences can bring as much to the museum as it can give to them. With so many resources in teenage hands, museum programming has taken some unanticipated turns. But with teen audiences increasing by 29 percent over the last five years, Halbreich isn't arguing with the results.
Q. What did you have in mind when you created the teen program?
A. We didn't create the teen program with a specific plan, just a desire to engage young people in the life of the institution. When we decided to work with a relatively small number of kids and give them enormous responsibility for planning and marketing the programs they want, we had to learn to consider things we might once have rejected out of hand. For example, in 1998, the teens wanted to invite the Guerrilla Girls, a group of artist-activists who wear masks to keep their anonymity. I saw them well over a decade ago and thought they'd be passé now, we ended up presenting them to a sold out house.
Q. Why did you choose to focus on teenagers?
A. We're not social scientists, but I know what the arts can mean to young people, and I've seen what a huge difference an institution like the Walker can make in their lives. Young people are at a stage when they are "acquiring" culture and, like contemporary artists, are doing a significant amount of probing, questioning and provoking in an attempt to find their place in society and to create their own individual voices. As they do this, they open doors and make all of us think again about our audiences and our own proclivities.
Q. What have you learned from reaching out to them?
A. What we've learned as we approach new audiences is that we have to listen very carefully to their concerns. For teen programming, this means that our list of "experts" has expanded, and some of them haven't hit their twenties yet. The teens have taught us how to market to their constituency with images and language that we might never have used.
We've also learned that messiness is very much of the creative process, whether you're creating a program or a work of art. You don't always get the answer you think you're going to get, but you often end up with new trajectories to follow. Our supporters have been able to live with this, and it's absolutely changed this institution.
Q. In what ways have new audiences changed the museum?
A. Openings that were once attended by primarily white, affluent museum-goers now have younger, more hip and more diverse audiences. The Walker has become a place to experience different values. And while the art we're showing may be difficult or disturbing to some people, to others it can be affirming. The question we encourage people to ask is not whether it's art, but "what does it mean to me?" and "whose story does it tell?"