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MMAA in St. Paul to close indefinitely

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Minnesota Museum of American Art
For the last four years the Minnesota Museum of American Art has resided in the old West Publishing building located on Kellog boulevard in downtown St. Paul. The move was supposed to make the museum more visible to downtown traffic, but it's now being forced to find a new home.
Image courtesy of the Minnesota Museum of American Art

When the Minnesota Museum of American Art or MMAA moved into the old West Publishing building four years ago, museum officials thought they had found a permanent home.

Now the museum finds itself without a space and without a leader.

Longtime director Bruce Lilly resigned this summer and hasn't yet been replaced. Ramsey County recently decided to sell the building to get it back on the property tax rolls, which means the MMAA has to move.

MMAA Chair David Kelly
Minnesota Museum of American Art Chair David Kelly says the financially strapped museum has a lot of hurdles it will have to clear.
Photo Courtesy of Kelly, Hannaford and Battles, P.A.

Board Chair David Kelly says the financially strapped museum has a lot of hurdles it will have to clear.

"We are trying to find a permanent home, and trying to increase our funding base, and trying to take good care of the collection," he said. "I think we have a good future, but there are a lot of challenges at the current time."

The Minnesota Museum of American Art specializes in American art from 1900 to 1960, and Minnesota artists from the late 19th century to the present. It has about 35-hundred works in its collection, much of it stored away.

David Kelly would like to more than triple its space from 4,000 square feet to 12 to 14,000, but finding a new location in downtown St. Paul is the least of his worries.

"Wherever we go it will require a capital campaign and we'll need to raise money to convert the new location into a suitable art museum and I'm sure that's more of a challenge in today's economic environment then in better times," he said.

Where did everybody go?
An sound installation called "Urban Echo" showing at the museum in 2007.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

In other words, the MMAA needs donors with some financial might to step out of the shadows.

In this economy, says Weisman Art Museum director Lyndel King, even the most generous donors have become extremely cautious. King, a board member of the American Association of Museums, says in addition, donors like to support organizations that are successful, not those that need to be saved.

"So it's kind a double-edged sword," she said. "In order to get money you have to be already successful and in order to be successful you have to get money. So for small organizations particularly, I think that's really an issue."

The MMAA's plight is disappointing news to St. Paul artists such as Aaron VanDyke, who've been pulling for the capital city to become more of a haven for visual arts.

"All that stuff tends to go over to Minneapolis and it's just too bad we don't have something here," he said.

Aaron Van Dyke
Artist Aaron VanDyke. VanDyke has had work shown at the MMAA but he thinks it's more valuable to art students trying to get their careers started.
Image courtesy of Aaron Van Dyke

VanDyke teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He's shown work at the MMAA, but he thinks it's even more valuable to Twin Cities art students trying to launch careers.

"A lot of the students are volunteers there," he said. "Some of them get jobs there. Oftentimes, after they graduate, they can get into a show there."

Could it be that in the Twin Cities museum rich environment, the Minnesota Museum of American Art is one too many? The Weisman's Lyndel King doesn't think so. But King does believe the MMAA has to carve out a more distinct identity to survive.

"They just haven't been able to find the right place for themselves over the past 20-years and I think they've suffered because of that," she said.

MMAA Board Chair David Kelly thinks it's a valid point. But Kelly says it's the museum's permanent collection, with numerous works by noted 20th century sculptor and Minnesota native Paul Manship and the great Native American painter George Morrison, that could help it define its niche.

It just doesn't have the space to show it.

"It'll be much easier for us to develop that niche if we had more room to actually display the artworks," he said.

In order to acquire more space, Lyndel King says the museum will have to convince local leaders and benefactors that it should continue.

"What would be missing from the community if they weren't here any longer?" she asked. "Or, if they can't make that case, what is the real potential for them to make a great contribution to lives in our community and why should I support that, particularly in a time like this?"

King says in past few months, the economy has made the MMAA's case even harder, but she says it still needs to be made.