The Walker Art Center is shifting its staffing, elevating its public engagement during a critical moment.
The "realignment," which creates nine new roles, cuts five positions and changes three existing jobs, shows how executive director Mary Ceruti plans to reshape the Minneapolis art center after taking over in January 2019.
Ceruti announced Monday that the Walker is creating a new department titled Public Engagement, Learning and Impact. Nisa Mackie, director of education and public programs, will be in charge — joining the senior leadership team.
Mackie will be "thinking about how we plan our programs from the perspective of what matters to people," Ceruti said in an interview. "Not just what are artists thinking and excited about, but how do we connect that to what is important in people's lives?"
In part, the shifts reflect a response to the 2017 controversy over "Scaffold," a sculpture that drew anguish and sparked protests. At the time, some Native American leaders criticized the Walker for not engaging with them ahead of time about the work, based partly on the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862.
Among the new roles: head of content and communications. Among the losses: Paul Schmelzer, editor of Walker Reader, who has worked for the Walker for 18 years. In 2014, he launched Artist Op-Eds, where artists grapple with urgent issues.
Earlier this year, the New York Times mentioned the Walker Reader in praising the Walker's website as "a networked treasure house."
The news was "unexpected," Schmelzer said in a Facebook post. "I've always approached my work through twin lenses — relevance and social justice — always seeking to make the case that contemporary art matters."
The changes won't affect curatorial staff, a spokesperson said, and the Walker still plans to hire a senior curator of film and video following the retirement of Sheryl Mousley.
The moves weren't about reducing head count, Ceruti said, and will result in a slight increase in staff cost.
Earlier this summer, the Walker announced that it was laying off 33 part-time staff members because of the slimming of programming and hours amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It reopened to the public July 16, but only four days a week and to a limited number of visitors.
Adding Mackie to the leadership team will give her broader accountability and more resources to do more of the work for which she's become known, Ceruti said.
"Eventually what you'll see is a different kind of public voice," Ceruti said. Whether people have much experience with art or not, they will "feel like there's an access point to them, whether it's through the web, how it feels in the [Walker's physical] space, the language that we're using.
"Hopefully, when we can gather people again, it'll be a place where a whole lot of people will feel at home."