Michael Kaiser, Digital Sharecropping and the Walker Redesign

In 1845 Edgar Allen Poe wrote that the mass production of books was “one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”

Over 165 years later Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center echoed this sentiment. In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, Kaiser condemned the “growing influence of blogs, chat rooms and message boards” for contributing to the decline of art criticism, shifting it into a “participatory activity rather than a spectator sport.”

He lambasted cultural organizations who allow audiences to write critiques on their official websites, claiming, “this is a scary trend.” His controversial remarks were rooted in no small part to a belief that the influence of these “citizen critics” was contributing to a growing trend of art that “appeals to the lowest common denominator” and is “measured by a popularity contest.”

Perhaps made unknowingly, Kaiser’s argument was one against digital sharecropping, a term coined by blogger Nicholas Carr to reference the “distribution of [digital] production into the hands of the many and the concentration of [its] economic rewards into the hands of the few.” Sites like Facebook, Yahoo’s Flickr and Youtube are profitable ventures only by aggregating the content of its users “on a massive scale—on a web scale.”

Kaiser saw these bloggers as “workers” creating competitive products, sellable goods that challenge the work of professional critics rather than considering their contributions as “acts of sharing.” As Lev Manovich, author of The Language of New Media notes, the web of the 1990s may have been a publication medium but the current web is a communication medium, in which conversation happens to take place “between users and around user-generated content through “a variety of form besides email: posts, comments, reviews, ratings gestures and tokens, votes, links, badges, photo and video.

Cognitive Surplus author Clay Shirky echoed this sentiment:

As long as the assumed purpose of media is to allow ordinary people to consume professionally created [and curated] material, the proliferation of amateur-created stuff will seem incomprehensible…. But what if all this time providing professional content isn’t the only job we’ve been hiring media to do? What if we have also been hiring it to make us feel connected, engaged or just less lonely?  What if we’ve always wanted to produce as well as consume but no one offered us the opportunity? …The phrase ‘user-generated content,’ the current label for creative acts by amateurs really describes not just personal but social acts.

Indeed, no more are we a generation defined by “we are what we own” but rather “we are what we share.”

When the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, launched a redesign of its website in late 2011, the organization was cognizant of its need to become an “online hub for ideas about contemporary art and culture, both inside the Walker and beyond.” What it actually created was viewed by many including  Seb Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, to be “a potential paradigm shift for institutional websites.”

As of 2006, 43% of museum visits took place remotely, primarily through museum websites.

Few institutions, however, consider their website beyond its function as a marketing tool, “pretend[ing] that the museum is an island unto itself.”

Walkerart.org, on the other-hand, is the museum, bringing artistic discourse from around the web to a central portal.  Olga Viso, the Executive Director of the Walker explained the impetus for this new focus. “As a pioneer in developing new platforms for scholarship, publishing, arts journalism, and creative exchange with our audiences, we believe we can play an important role in offering alternative media infrastructures as arts coverage in the mainstream media outlets everywhere have been dramatically reduced in recent years (sic).”

Beyond being one of the sites Kaiser condemns for allowing visitors to comment on content, the Walker offers “Arts News from Elsewhere,” which aggregates news stories from other sites and sends readers out beyond the virtual walls of the Walker to explore new forums for learning and participation.

The Walker refers out to content all over the web, placing independent blogs such as Hyperallergic and IndiWire on the same plain as The New York Times and The Atlantic.  In an anonymous post on Artlog, popular blogger, Museum Nerd, commented

Museums no longer need to think of their stakeholders as the people who come through the door. The Walker has positioned themselves at the center of the global conversation about contemporary art. By placing the content of others (as well as excellent editorial content of their own) right there on the homepage, they’ve created a website you want to go to if you have any interest in contemporary art, regardless of whether you’ll ever visit the museum. They’re not just positioning themselves as an arbiter of taste (the connoisseurship thing has long been in every art museum’s bailiwick): the Walker is also placing themselves at the center of the conversation that their mission is all about.

“My dream,” said Nate Solas, the Walker’s Senior New Media Developer, “is of the site to be both the start and also links in a chain of Wikipedia-like surfing that leads from discovery to discovery, and suddenly an hour’s gone by.”

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