<<back to an Open Letter To Kathy Halbreich

Steve Dietz's response to the net art community's concerns regarding the future of new media at The Walker Art Center.

posted June 26, 2003

To the signers of the open letter to Kathy Halbreich

Thank you.

It is not my intention to dwell on my personal circumstances in relation to the Walker’s decision to terminate its new media curatorial program. Steve Dietz and the Walker is a boring morality play that matters most to a relatively small number of friends and family. Nevertheless, the response of the field - both supportive and intelligently critical - has been heartening to me personally, and I thank you. As much as we have all come to mistrust or at least be skeptical of the “C” word, there has been a palpable sense of community in response to the actions of one of its defacto members.

Because the Walker, I would argue, for better or worse, had become over the past 7 years, an undeniable part of the new media/digital/net art (for brevity, nma) ecosystem. Part of this was my passion, of course, but my practice was significantly and consciously situated within an institutional context. I did not and do not believe that mainstream art institutions should be viewed as some kind of pinnacle authority in relation to nma. We only prove our value by doing things of value, not simply by being part of the establishment art world. At the same time, I believe that institutions can have a useful and fruitful role in relation to nma. Part of that belief is based in the value of longevity and commitment. An institution can (potentially) do things over time that are difficult, and perhaps less interesting, over time, for artists and virtual communities. So what does it mean in relation to these and other possibilities when an institution like the Walker pulls the plug?

In one of the first pieces I wrote about net art for “Beyond Interface,” I deliberately appropriated David Antin’s seminal essay on video, substituting “net art” for his “video art” (http://www.yproductions.com/beyondinterface/bi_fr.html) as a simplistic but effective way to use what we understood well (video) to think about something we then understood less well (net art). So when I read in the Walker’s letter “. . . we will be focusing on enhancing the Walker Web site’s educational components and on realizing some of the interactive projects for our expansion,” I can’t help but imagine an institution terminating its film/video program and saying “we intend to focus our commitment to film and video by using videotape to document interviews with artists, which can then be broadcast on educational cable tv.” Or, “we’re getting rid of our photo department, but we’ll still take pictures of the artworks in our collection.”

I’m actually a huge proponent of the potential mutations possible when there is intercourse between new media art and more prosaic or didactic functions, but the latter without the former is at best a confusing conflation and in no way at all a continuation of that part of the Walker’s mission to be a “. . . catalyst for the creative expression of artists . . .” The Walker has decided that committed, long-term support of new media artists is no longer a priority despite its existing five-year plan, which explicitly envisions otherwise.

The stated reason, of course, is economics. There is no question that the Walker, along with every other arts organization in the United States, is under extreme economic pressure. The irony, however, is that the Walker’s new media curatorial budget has been 100% grant funded. By terminating the program, there are literally no savings of non-salary costs for the foreseeable future.

It is true that some building-related fundraising - the Walker was planning a $225,000 “mediatheque” for its new building - that would have had to happen will not now have to. But as difficult as it is to raise a quarter million dollars in capital costs and perhaps $150,000 in annual programming costs in the current economic climate, I fear the reasoning for Walker’s abandonment of its new media curatorial program is more problematic in terms of the generic issue of institutional involvement in the nma field.

In order for the Walker to maintain its commitment to building “more than a museum” that will “offer our multiple audiences the unique opportunity to experience under one roof the relationships between the most innovative visual, performing, and media arts of our time” (http://expansion.walkerart.org/dir_statement.wac), it has devised a strategy, which is referred to internally to as the “85% solution.” Simply put, these are cuts in the original building program that the Walker feels the public will never notice. I would assume that probably 90% of ambitious buildings ever built have done this. But even if unconsciously, the Walker has made the determination that neither the estimated 1.2 million visitors to the new building nor the current 3 million visitors to the Walker’s websites (approximately half of whom view nma), will “notice” that the Walker no longer supports new media artists post-2003. It has to be asked whether this is another manifestation of an old-fashioned and inaccurate notion that the virtual is not real (really); it’s sort of invisible, and so it does not quite matter as much.

I know that the response of the new media community to the Walker’s termination of its ongoing support for new media artists has underscored that the Walker, nevertheless, has a responsibility to the existing new media artworks and resources under its aegis, which cannot be abrogated or even arrogated - any more than it can willy nilly de-accession contemporary art that may no longer be in favor with its current staff or public opinion - regardless of the fact they are virtual.

I hope that other institutions will see that the community for new media art is broad and deep and diverse and Real and will consider redoubling their efforts around nma and certainly not suspend them.

I have been at the table when the director of the Walker has made courageous decisions, but this was not one of them, and I believe, regretfully, that in the long run it will undermine how credibly the Walker can pursue its “more than a museum” motto more than the credibility of the field itself.