Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

'The Object' podcast launces its fifth season on the hidden stories behind Mia's art collection

Rock the Cradle at Mia 2022
"The Object" podcast is hosted by Tim Gihring.
Darin Kamnetz for MPR

Have you ever gone into an art museum and wondered, “Seriously, what’s the story behind that thing?” Tim Gihring is on a mission to tell us those stories.

Gihring is the host and creator of The Object, a podcast that tells the story of the Minneapolis Institute of Art through its 90,000-plus artifacts, representing 5,000 years of world history. Their fifth season launched on March 6.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Say, have you ever gone into an art museum, or any museum, and wondered, seriously, what's the story behind that thing? Well, our next guest is right there with you. Tim Gihring is the host and creator of The Object, a podcast that tells the story of the Minneapolis Institute of Art through its 90,000-plus artifacts representing 5,000 years of world art history. Here's a clip from their new season launching this week.


- When European explorers came across these temples in the 1800s and early 1900s, they found sculptures everywhere, missing body parts. They assumed at first, just as people do today, that this is simply what happens if you leave something out in the elements for hundreds or thousands of years. Whether it's from ancient Egypt or ancient Greece or ancient Rome, things fall apart, especially things that are, well, sticking out.


CATHY WURZER: [LAUGHS] Podcast host and creator Tim Gihring joins us right now. Hey, glad you could join us again. How are you?

TIM GIHRING: I'm well, Cathy. Thanks so much for having me.

CATHY WURZER: That was a nice line you had there-- good writing, as a matter of fact. I enjoy that. So--

TIM GIHRING: Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: --you were on last year with us talking about the podcast The Object. And at that time, you were heading into the fourth season. This is season 5, right? Wow.

TIM GIHRING: That's right. Yeah, five years now.

CATHY WURZER: What's new for this season?

TIM GIHRING: You know, I guess what I would say is new is that I'm starting to look beyond some of the sort of greatest hits of the museum and into some of those questions that we all have when we walk into an art museum or any museum. How did this stuff get here, and why is it the way it is? Who decides?

And when you get to those questions, you sort of move beyond art into some of these bigger social and historical questions, which is so fascinating to me.

CATHY WURZER: I want to go back just briefly here because, of course, that was a provocative line in the podcast, the department of missing limbs. By the way, why so many objects-- why are they missing limbs? Was there looting going on? What happened?

TIM GIHRING: So many different reasons, and some of them rather unexpected. Looting is one for sure. I mean, sometimes, if you're somebody who has something to sell, you might even break that object in two, right? You might sell the head and the body, a twofer.

And some of these things are broken up because they were chiseled out of caves or out of some other place where they couldn't get the whole object. So that's certainly part of it. One of the more fascinating things for me about that story is that we've just kind of come to accept that ancient objects are broken, right?

Well, there's a history there. At some point, people liked the fact that these things were broken. That was sort of interesting to them, this sort of romantic era. And broken ancient objects symbolize decay and some of these other romantic ideas. So the Venus de Milo, you know, the sculpture with the woman who's missing her arms famously--


TIM GIHRING: --when the French first come across this sculpture, it's not long after they realized there's some other pieces around. They have a piece of the arm. They have this apple that she was probably holding. But they're like, you know, nah, we like it the way it is, and just kind of tucked these other things away.

The base of the sculpture has a date on it that's sort of inconvenient, too. These things are all sort of pushed aside because what matters is this sort of iconic image of a broken woman from the past. And you get to sort of revel in that romantic aura.

CATHY WURZER: Did you have the idea for the podcast or somebody else? I don't remember. Was this your idea?

TIM GIHRING: This was my concept in the sense of I have a background as a writer. I've been writing about arts and other things for 25-plus years. And so the concept of can I just tell a good story with good writing, maybe a little background music, as you heard, and tell these stories, that was my concept because those are, frankly, my strengths. I'm not a curator. I'm not an art historian. But I can tell a good story, I think. And that's, over five seasons, proven to be a good formula.

CATHY WURZER: You do tell a good story. Tell us about the case of the missing Rembrandt.

TIM GIHRING: Oh, that's a great one, too. We have this Lucretia painting Rembrandt painted towards the end of his life. This was a painting that was bought by Herschel Jones, former publisher of The Minneapolis Tribune, and this was purchased just a couple of years before he dies. And so his widow, Lydia, inherits this painting. She has seven children, and she has to figure out who's going to get this painting.

Well, her solution is to give it to the museum. So no one gets the painting. But Minnesota does. The state does.

And, of course, this becomes kind of an unexpected calling card that fell in the lap of the museum just 20 years after it opened. And for a long time, it was almost sort of a joke. This painting was never at the museum. It was always traveling because we'd lend it out to all these shows. But it sort of put us on the map.

CATHY WURZER: You know, you've got so much in MIA's collection to talk about and to focus on. Do you try to find artists in the collection who have specific Minnesota connections?

TIM GIHRING: I do. I mean, there are some good ones. And there are some artists that may be familiar to people, like George Morrison, the Ojibwe artist from the Lake Superior area. And then there's plenty who are unfamiliar.

On the other side of that, of course, are Minnesota collectors. The background, again, which I'm so fascinated-- these stories of how things end up here in Minneapolis is often as interesting as the art itself, right?


TIM GIHRING: So you have people like Herschel Jones. You have people like TB Walker, who founded the Walker Art Center and was a big supporter of the Minneapolis Institute of Art as well. There's just great stories behind those folks, and there's great stories behind the connections that we made to some other artists.

We used to have this thing called the Artmobile. And this is, like, in the early '70s.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, my gosh. I remember that.

TIM GIHRING: Do you really?


TIM GIHRING: It was a semitrailer that we would drive around the rest of the state, outside the Twin Cities, and bring original artworks, really good artworks. Anyway, I found some correspondence between the man who was curating the Artmobile and Georgia O'Keeffe.


TIM GIHRING: And he says, you know, we'd like to have some original art from you, Georgia. Can I-- I'm going to follow you around in the Artmobile until you give me some art.


TIM GIHRING: You know, what I really like about that is that Georgia O'Keeffe, in the 1970s, is, like, the world's most famous recluse, right?


TIM GIHRING: This is what we know about her. And yet her response was like, don't bother trying to follow me around in that Artmobile thing. Why don't you just come to my house?

CATHY WURZER: Even better.

TIM GIHRING: So that sort of set me off-- yeah, exactly. That sort of set me off on the story of, like, was she really a recluse, or is that just what we wanted to believe about her, and the story of the sort of image-making that went on around her and that goes on around a lot of famous people.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. That's a great story. So you're perfect for the job because of your journalistic background, I mean, because, really, you're using all the tools of journalism. You're digging around. You're doing the research. You're combing through archives. You're perfect for this.

TIM GIHRING: Well, it's an awful lot of fun to be able to indulge my curiosity. Our former director used to call me the curator of curiosity. And that's all it is. I just get a thread. And if it feels like someone hasn't quite run this through to the end yet, that's something I can pick up on. And five seasons in, I'm getting into some pretty curious stuff.

CATHY WURZER: I'm going to have to listen absolutely, because I love Monet, your June 5 episode, the one that's coming up, "Making Monet"?

TIM GIHRING: Yeah. I mean, that's the idea. I think I've said before I'm sort of like a 1980s TV producer. I only work, like, one episode ahead. So I haven't totally fleshed that out.


TIM GIHRING: But we have this great Monet of the Haystacks. And he made a lot of these things. And he made a lot of paintings of a single thing, right?


TIM GIHRING: His Waterlilies, of course, and he did a number of these subjects. And that was sort of fascinating to me, too, because the line we get from that is, well, he was studying the light and he wanted to see it in different light.

CATHY WURZER: Right, right.

TIM GIHRING: You know, but he also wanted to make money. And that's where I'm going to come into this. It's like, you know, Monet the millionaire.

CATHY WURZER: I'm going to absolutely listen to that, but I'm going to give you some time to get it done. Tim, it's been a pleasure as always. Thank you so much.

TIM GIHRING: Same here. Thanks for having me on, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Tim Gihring is the person behind The Object podcast at MIA. This has been Minnesota Now.

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