Kaywin Feldman looks to the MIA's future

Kaywin Feldman
Kaywin Feldman will assume the post of Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in January 2008.
Image courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts

As an expert on 17th century Dutch and Flemish art, Kaywin Feldman has a very special place in her heart for the paintings of Rembrandt.

"They really express the pathos of the human condition in the most tender and touching way," she said.

She stands in front of Rembrandt's depiction of the dishonored and suicidal Roman wife "Lucretia." Feldman said it's just one of the masterpieces available at the MIA.

"And it's a picture that we hold in trust for the city, so all of the residents of the Twin Cities can come and enjoy this picture that they share a part of," she said.

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Feldman said she's thrilled to be at the MIA. She said its permanent collection is internationally known, it's staff and programming are top notch, and it exists in an area with a unique reputation for philanthropic generosity. It's also recently completed a major expansion and capital campaign.

Even Feldman's colleagues at the museum she used to head, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee, were excited for her.

"Particularly my education curator, who just said 'you'll be working with the best education department in the country,' " she said. "So definitely the reputation of the MIA is so well known by our team in Memphis."

"She's a person who doesn't talk a lot. She sits back and listens really well, and then when something comes out, everybody pays attention."

But Feldman said it is not well known enough in its own community and outside the museum world. She hopes to remedy that by generating more national media for the museum through more traveling exhibitions and scholarship on the permanent collection.

Before that can happen Feldman needs to fill four open positions in the MIA's curatorial staff.

"That's really the first thing that I'm working on right now is to attract some international talent here to fill some of those vacancies," she said.

The Institute, with its free admission, outreach and education programs, is looked upon by some as a model for audience accessibility. Still, some populations, particularly minorities and immigrants, rarely visit. Feldman dealt with that situation in Memphis by linking up with the social service agencies that serve them.

"So we developed some really really innovative and engaging partnerships with organizations like the Memphis Literacy Council, Alzheimers Day Services, Boys and Girls Clubs, different organizations that were doing really great work in the community to connect our audiences," she said.

Someone who knew Feldman when she was in Memphis was Lyndel King, director of the Weisman Art Museum. They met through the American Association of Museum Directors. King said Feldman may be coming up from the South, but she comes across like a Midwesterner.

"I don't think she is, but she could be," King said. "She has that kind of open and honest, positive approach to things. She's a person who doesn't talk a lot. She sits back and listens really well, and then when something comes out, everybody pays attention."

King said people don't realize how hard it is to lead a museum after it's completed enormous projects like expansions and capital campaigns. She said huge new expectations arise without the budget increases to meet them. The staff, said King, is usually burned out, and they either leave or go back to their departmental silos.

"So it's really a very difficult time in the life of an institution," she said. And she's stepping in at just the right moment as a calming presence that will bring people back together again."

Kaywin Feldman said she learned in Memphis that despite the array of challenges a director faces, it still comes down to what happens to a visitor upon entering a museum.

"All of my favorite memories were about individuals or audiences having really meaningful experiences with original works of art in the galleries," she said.

Feldman expects to collect many more of those memories during her tenure at the MIA. Unlike her predecessor William Griswold, who left just two years after he was started, Feldman says she's here to stay.