MIA director takes on new plan to make museum more contemporary

Kaywin Feldman
MIA Director Kaywin Feldman has made several new hires in order to bring more contemporary collections to the art museum.
Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Inst. of Arts

When asked about the future of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Director Kaywin Feldman said she wants to see it bursting at the seems. To do that, she said her team really just needs to take advantage of the resources it already has.

"I feel like I'm the most lucky director in the world to arrive at such a great institution at this moment when the museum has finished a new building and a capital campaign," Feldman said. "So our focus now is really thinking about the collections, exhibitions, programs and publications. That's a great time for a curator because those are things that most curators love to work on."

Curators refer to the MIA as an encyclopedic museum, it has a vast collection covering continents and centuries. But they also admit their collection is rather thin when it comes to art created after World War II.

Director Kaywin Feldman has hired contemporary art curator Liz Armstrong to change that. Armstrong said she loves the challenge.

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"It's really a fantastic kind of Art History 101 project," Armstrong said. "A large, established, Midwest museum has not been collecting art for 50 years and has encyclopedic collections. How would you put together a collection for this museum?

Armstrong said she's working on putting together what she calls a "wish list" exhibition. It will tell the story of contemporary art over the past 40 to 50 years. It will highlight the most important artists and movements of the time, with pieces which she hopes will become part of the permanent collection.

Contemporary art curator Liz Armstrong
Contemporary art curator Liz Armstrong was hired by the MIA to bring more contempory pieces and shows to the Museum. Armstrong said she loves the challenge.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

But, cherry picking some of the best artwork of an era after the fact is much more expensive than taking chances on new artists and buying their work while it's still relatively cheap. Building a contemporary art collection from scratch is going to take a lot of money during a time of economic contraction.

Director Kaywin Feldman admits it will take some creativity, but she said that's something art museums have always been good at.

"Engaging donors and collectors so that they see their works here on the walls and can imagine them staying with the MIA in perpetuity," Feldman said. "I'm helping to work with collectors to build collections that make sense for us one day, so it's a balance of raising the money for individual acquisitions, hoping that collectors will work with the MIA in keeping their collections here, and then making those really strategic purchases as well.

Feldman said the MIA has a great reputation in the academic world, but it has yet to reach that status at a more pedestrian level. Under her direction, the MIA is now contracting out some of the museum's public relations work to a New York firm in order to raise its profile.

Feldman has also hired a new head curator of photography, David Little. Little hails from New York's Museum of Modern Art, and has a strong background in both, modern photography and video, as well as art education. Little said he plans to build upon the legacy left by late photography curator Ted Hartwell.

Marilyn Monroe
This portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Richard Avedon is just one of thousands of photographs former curator Ted Hartwell acquired for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Hartwell curated the first-ever retrospective of Avedon's work in 1970.
Photo by Richard Avedon, courtesy of the MIA

"The main directive is to think about the MIA, and the relationship of contemporary photography to the MIA, to further grow the collection and to grow it into the contemporary area," Little said. "But to also to grow it within the historical collection that already exists and to offer new perspectives on the historical collection."

For Little, that means buying more work by contemporary photographers around the world.

Little's wife was recently hired as chief curator by the Walker Art Center. When asked about possible competition between the MIA and the Walker, and as a result him and his spouse, Little replies that in cities such as New York, several museums thrive in the same setting. And he believes the Twin Cities are healthy enough to support two contemporary art museums.

MIA director Kaywin Feldman said that while the museum is bringing it's collection up to date by adding works from the last half century, its core mission remains the same.

"I want people from every type of background and interest to come here and have a great great experience," Feldman said. "And then the most remarkable masterpieces created by humanity for them to enjoy while they are here."

If Feldman has her way, more of those masterpieces will be by artists of our time.