Case Study | Walker Art Center

I had the pleasure of heading development during a critical moment in the history of the Walker, a contemporary art center and sculpture garden based in Minneapolis with programs in the visual, performing, and media arts. For decades the museum had served as a beacon, producing and promoting the best in contemporary art worldwide. I arrived there as part of a wave of senior leaders hired by the museum’s then new director Kathy Halbreich. Kathy had a clear vision for the Walker’s next chapter and was eager to lead the organization through a strategic planning process shortly after her arrival.

Museum management invited volunteers and staff at all levels to participate in this process, including young people working the front desk, line staff in all departments, the security and maintenance teams, curators, volunteer tour guides, as well as the Board of Directors. We heard from inspiring speakers around the country who were breaking new ground in the arts, then separated into small groups to hammer out a fresh mission, vision, and values for the Walker. We debated new concepts in audience engagement, programs, outreach, partnerships, etc. Over the course of many weeks, everyone was asked to dream about what the future could look like and, in doing so, respected, engaged and excited by the possibilities.The new mission—“The Walker Art Center is a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences.”—was silk-screened onto the wall near the staff and volunteer entrance. Every day we walked by that declarative statement, and we were said, “It was like saluting the flag.”

While the Walker enjoyed a long history of producing excellent artistic programs, its visitors and patrons at the time were primarily white, middle class, and highly educated. When I arrived in my new job, the demographics of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were quickly changing. In fact, at that moment, 65% of the students in public school were children of color. Kathy challenged us to think about fresh ways to engage new audiences and connect them to the center.Outreach programs focused on three areas: communities of color, teenagers, and low-income families. The strategies to reach each group were different, complicated, and often challenging. Some concepts worked, many failed. But we were encouraged to keep testing ideas to reach these varied communities.

Over several years, the volunteers and staff became more diverse. We designed an internship program for curators of color in a field that is predominantly white. We cultivated key partnerships with community groups to help us create new programs that ultimately—and successfully—connected the Walker with these new audiences. Every day our work followed the mission, vision, and values, and everyone understood the role they needed to play in order for the Walker to be successful. As the senior development officer, I was invited to be at the table debating and helping curators and educators realize this new vision. Being asked to participate in the organization at this level was an honor, but it also helped me deeply understand the work of my colleagues. I then shared these ideas and concepts with our development and membership teams to keep them informed of our new programs. This, in turn, kept us all focused on the mission and the purpose of our work.

As fundraisers our goal was to create long-term relationships with donors and to raise money to support the Walker. The starting point of that work was encouraging visitors to join the museum as members. We created great benefits for our members: special programs, behind-the-scenes tours, invitations to openings before the general public, and discounts in our shop. Once engaged at that level, our goal was to get those members to renew their annual gifts and hopefully make a larger contribution to the museum. Larger gifts provided access to more intimate events and experiences. This pattern of cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship (taking good care strong development program.

Under Kathy’s leadership the Walker built an incredible culture of philanthropy. Because she asked everyone in the museum to participate in thinking about its future, the staff and volunteers felt genuinely connected to our mutual goals— a pride that continues to this day. You can still feel it when you walk in the door and are welcomed by friendly young people directing you to the exhibitions and services. And before you head off on your Walker adventure, they invite you to become a member because they know it is your first step in building a lifelong philanthropic relationship with the Walker Art Center.

By Katharine DeShaw