Nisa Mackie fell in love twice when she came halfway around the world to lead education programs at the Walker Art Center.
Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Mackie was the manager and curator of education and public programs at Biennale of Sydney, an international contemporary art festival. When she heard that a similar position was open at the Walker, she applied for the job at what she describes as a “beacon for the arts world.”
Despite first visiting in the cold of December 2014, she fell in love with Minneapolis.
“I was blown away by how stunning the city was,” says Mackie, 32.
When she was hired in May 2015 she met a Minnesota man, artist Dylan Nelson, and fell in love again.
“It was kind of kismet,” she says. “I was very excited to move here permanently.”
Part of Mackie’s job is to get people to visit the Walker even if they’ve never been in a contemporary art museum. She’s in charge of an 11-person department that oversees programs like the long-running First Free Saturday events and the Target Free Thursday Nights. More recently she’s led an initiative to fund field trips for Twin Cities area schools, bringing thousands of students to the Walker for the first time at no cost to the schools. The program targets schools that have high numbers of students receiving free or reduced lunch.
Students look forward to the visits: “I am so excited to come see what the fun is all about,” one sixth-grade student wrote to the museum. “I heard there is a giant bowl and cherry inside.”
Once at the Walker, museum educators, including Somali, Spanish and Hmong speakers, lead students in conversations about individual pieces, talking about what they observe and the political and social issues raised by the art.
Another new, free program, the monthly Sensory Friendly Sunday, sets aside time in the museum tailored for people with sensory sensitivities or who are on the autism spectrum. Mackie noted that entry to most museums is free in Australia. She sees access to art as “a basic citizen right.”
Access and equity have been important at the Walker, Mackie said, but the museum has “doubled down” on inclusion efforts following the controversy last year over the “Scaffold” sculpture in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden that offended members of the Dakota community.
“Our function is to educate, to inspire, to interpret,” Mackie said. “As an educator, there is a particular joy that you can derive from seeing people engage with [art] work.”