There are approximately 9,600 objects in the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection, yet only seven percent of the collection is currently on display. Now, a vitrine in the Walker’s Bazinet lobby contains the newest additions: a locked suitcase, a pregnant Barbie, and a copy of 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, among others. This small collection, created by the Walker Art Center’s Teen Arts Council (WACTAC), is the product of a concerted effort by the program’s artists-in-residence to make the teens think about the nature of the institutions that display art.
Collecting Corruption is the culmination of the teen group’s five months of study. David Bartley and Matthew Bakkom, the program’s first local artists-in-residence, decided the best way to introduce the group of 14 high schoolers to institutional arts was to create an environment similar to that of a contemporary art center. The two helped the teens come up with a budget and a timeline for the project, and also lent advice on how to manage the inevitable divergence of opinions.
David Bartley, who is also a senior registration technician for the Walker’s permanent collection, was animated when asked to recount the challenges of the project and its reception by the teens.
“Really, it’s almost a post-graduate project. Collections can be so broad and complicated, so it was very interesting to me to watch the process unfold, and see how we could actually talk about collections,” he said.
The first activity was for each member to present a personal collection to the group. Collections from comic books to door keys were discussed, as were the motives and qualifications for collecting.
“I thought it to be simple. I know what collecting is,” said Olivia Ebertz, of Minnehaha Academy.
But visits to the Fluxus collection currently stored in the museum’s basement and to collector Ralph Burnet’s home exposed the teens to grander and more conceptual examples of collecting.
“We found that money is an interesting trend,” said Bartley. “It was great to bring these guys in and watch them fire questions at the Burnets—’why this?’ and ‘why that?’”
Philippe Vergne, [outgoing] Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Walker, also discussed the challenges of collaborative decision-making with the group.
“Philippe really made it clear that the key element to any working group is to function democratically,” said Bartley. “Respecting your colleague’s selections and ideas.” And at this point in the project the group began to deliberate on what they wanted to collect.
“We started exploring collecting ideas versus objects, multiple (kinds of) objects or a single type of object,” said Ebertz.
This is where the process stalled. The teens’ artists’ statement mentions that the project “broke a few fragile egos,” and no doubt that occurred at this stage. What ended the impasse was the attempted facilitation of Bakkom and Bartley, who suggested books as the theme for the collection.
“We gave them an answer,” said Bakkom. “And it was like a lead balloon, totally silent. And I realized it was really a live situation. There was an out, and they didn’t take it.”
The young group kicked Bakkom and Bartley out of the meeting and emerged soon after with their own theme: corruption.
“We discussed representations of truth in institutions,” said Ricardo Ortiz of Eden Prairie High School. “And we wanted to represent the corruption of that truth.”
“They really went classic,” said Bakkom, laughing. “For teen issues, but even at my age too, it’s that the world’s not what they told us it would be, and we must reconcile expectation with experience.”
Bakkom said that the group’s generation is exposed to more false representations than his generation at their age, but is also more cognitive of them then he was.
“They have a great, nuanced suspicion of capital,” he said.
This suspicion is evident in many of the objects within the collection. A fake diamond-studded cross, a suitcase full of cash, a global finance award for Enron, and a replica of a Saddam Hussein dinar are all included. Each member was responsible for acquiring an object, and the group as a whole voted on any possible additions. Their diverse interpretations of the theme show in the seemingly disparate objects ranging from red food dye to candy cigarettes. Many of the teens, like Ortiz—who collects disco records and comics—said the project reaffirmed their own projects.
“I think it nurtured my packrat-ness,” said Ebert. “But the project provided me with a more realistic perspective of art collections and collectors.”
Carson Giblette of Prior Lake High School, whose objects to contribute were invariably disposed of by custodians, said he most valued the experience of working in a group.
“Talking about collections in this group was a passionate base for discussion,” he said.
Bakkom and Bartley are proud of the group, whom they sought to treat as colleagues. They hope their time with the teens will encourage the young artists to pursue future projects like Collecting Corruption.
“We wanted to introduce real-world barriers for them as a real challenge,” said Bakkom. “I believe this project shows that: if you do it well—if you take a project seriously and know that energy comes from the investment of energy—that project is going to live.”