Sorry, kitties, Walker Art Center is moving on. After hosting four purr-fectly successful Internet Cat Video Festivals, the Walker is quitting cats and giving all of its festival memorabilia to the Minnesota Historical Society.
“We think that cat videos will live on without us, and we’re really excited for other people to take up the mantle and program their own festivals,” said Emmet Byrne, the Walker’s design director.
The historical society thinks the festival’s relics — videos, posters, photos, cat costumes, glue-on whiskers — fit perfectly among the 250,000 objects in a collection that ranges from Ojibwe beadwork and Civil War letters to Prince’s “Purple Rain” outfit.
“Anything that can inspire 13,000 Minnesotans to gather around a topic is of interest to us,” said Lory Sutton, chief marketing officer at the Historical Society, referring to the overflow crowd that packed St. Paul’s CHS Field last year.
“For us, history isn’t just about what happened 100 years ago. It’s really about what’s happening today in Minnesota, and the cat video festival is a homegrown Minnesota phenomenon that reached the whole world.”
Indeed. The fest was written up in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Cat Fancy and Time magazine, among others. Japanese television, Australian talk shows, NPR and CNN weighed in.
Stars were born — Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, Pudge, and angst-ridden Henri, aka “Le Chat Noir,” who won the festival’s first Golden Kitty award.
Film fests in Vienna, Austria and Jerusalem, Israel gave it a nod. Copycat events sprang up in Chicago, Oakland and Portland. By the festival’s second year, it had grown into a tour booked in 15 cities including San Francisco, Brooklyn, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Derry in Northern Ireland.
The Walker was startled by all the hoopla.
“The festival was always an experiment,” said Byrne. “We wondered if it’s possible to translate an online phenomenon into a real-life experience. It surprised us how popular it was.”
It started as a lark in 2012. Needing a diversion for a balmy August evening, Walker program associate Katie Hill suggested inviting people to watch cat videos on a grassy hillside next to the museum. Staff expected a few dozen at most.
About 10,000 people showed up for the free event. Some drove hours to be there. They sported cat ears and whiskers, and cat-themed T-shirts. Many brought their cats.
From the start, it was a participatory event. Video suggestions came from around the world. Hill and her colleagues watched thousands of them before settling on the 79 screened the first night.
The Walker took the festival to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in 2013, back to its own campus the following summer, then to the Saints’ stadium in downtown St. Paul.
Although it charged a $10 ticket fee for the two off-site venues, the fest was never a moneymaker because of production costs, a Walker spokesperson said.
The historical society hasn’t booked its own cat video festival. Yet.
“We don’t have any plans right now, but if it’s about history we’re certainly going to consider it,” said Sutton.
As for the gal who started it all, Hill too has moved on.
Now an audience engagement specialist at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, she “got sort of saturated” on cat videos and no longer watches them.
Still, Hill was “giddy and excited” when told that the festival archives are now official Minnesota history “because that sets them in the zeitgeist of the time, which is exciting,” she said Thursday.