EDA Profile of Walker Art Center

A New and Welcoming Environment for Dance Novices

Audiences for any form of art include experts who feel confident discussing the medium, and laypeople who are unfamiliar with it. Contemporary dance can be difficult to penetrate for those without formal training, who hesitate to ask questions about a dance’s meaning or quality. How can dance presenters create an atmosphere where novices will be comfortable talking about dance? And, if such a welcoming environment is offered, will dance novices as well as visual arts audiences be more interested in seeing dance performances? Might they even make a personal investment in contemporary dance over time?

Prompted by its EDA funding, the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis explored these possibilities and developed a guide for its peers. Using educational, social, and technological strategies, Walker hoped to create a dance audience that transcends traditional demographics to include young people, museum-goers, and visual arts fans. It purposefully offered multiple engagement activities so audiences could choose their preferred ones. Staff sought to provide, as they state, an “accessible and dynamic exchange from different perspectives on a shared experience rather than rely on a single authoritative and more institutional voice.” Instead they sought for “all voices – artists, curators, local choreographers, docents, and even audience members—to have a place in discussions about dance.”

At its Speakeasy, which takes place after dance performances at bars, novices discuss the show in a relaxed setting, facilitated by visual arts docents. The Speakeasy aims to increase audiences’ comfort with talking about dance. Walker debuted Speakeasy in February 2010 with a group of 20 dance novices, and continued with nine dance events in the 2010-2011 season. Currently almost all events have a Speakeasy; these and other visual arts-related activities have been hugely successful in empowering audiences to talk about dance.

In their "A Think and A Drink" program, audiences attend a guided tour of a related visual art exhibit prior to a performance. The exhibition and performance share themes that illuminate each other, highlighting connections between the two disciplines to generate insightful discussions and engage audiences without a dance background.

Walker’s online strategies expand on Speakeasy and A Think and a Drink, linking these social events to a wide range of content that can be accessed before or after the show. Motivated by EDA, according to staff, the Walker website has accelerated in its use of podcasts, videos, blogs, and artist-posted content to provide information about dance performances. For example, in its Talk Dance podcasts, Walker hired a Minneapolis-based choreographer to interview guest choreographers presented there during the season, and these podcasts were streamed online at YouTube and downloadable to mobile devices. In-depth interviews by Philip Bither, the Senior Curator of Performing Arts, gave insight into their creative process, and an insider perspective. Walker hoped to increase participation in online forums and find out which social engagement platforms are most effective in drawing in younger and crossover visual arts audiences but did not find definitive answers. Walker has greatly increased the amount of contextual content and activities it produces, including reviews, artist interviews and curatorial talks. Just this season, there were 44 blog posts about dance.

These efforts are not without their challenges and unanswered questions. As with other EDA projects, one lesson was the amount of staff time and resources required to plan, prepare for and implement all the activity, including working internally with other Walker Departments as well as externally, through partnerships with local artists (who served as moderators and guest bloggers). The many interpretive activities involved time to research, leaving staff to selectively pair activities to each artist. Even the audiences themselves needed preparation and follow up, and audiences are more likely to stay for activities announced on the spot at shows.

Data was collected throughout the time period as part of an organization-wide survey, with positive results; it showed that dance audiences were by and large more familiar with Walker’s online tools than other audiences, leading staff to conclude that continued creation and dispersal of content is critical to engaging dance audiences. Walker’s EDA-related research efforts were two-fold. They explored the effectiveness of their SpeakEasy program by administering post-event online surveys to audience members who chose to attend. They also distributed surveys to measure differences in audience’s engagement with the performance, comparing those who participated in Walker’s array of EDA-sponsored activities versus those who did not participate.

As an aid to the dance field, Walker generously developed “A Recipe Book for Engaging Dance Audiences,” detailing all methods attempted, with hints, strengths, and lessons learned from each one. Similar to a real recipe, Walker encourages its peers to, test, and refine each approach, and even "substitute other ingredients", as they say, depending on the venue or type of engagement.

View the Powerpoint from a webinar about the project.
Peruse Walker’s dance content on its site.
Read and adapt Walkers' Recipe Book for Engaging Dance Audiences. 
Read about the EDA research for this project.

Julie Voigt or Michèle Steinwald

See also the content about this project that was presented during Dance/USA’s EDA Learning Exchanges, including video presentations from the grantees themselves about their project, as well as timelines, budgets, and other details.