Bruce Dayton, Minnesota business icon and arts patron, dies at 97

Bruce B. Dayton
One of the 20th century's most influential Minnesotans, Bruce Dayton helped transform his family's department store into a national retail empire, gave millions to the arts and saw his son Mark become governor.
Dan Dennehy | Minneapolis Institute of Art

Updated: 6 p.m. | Posted: 8:32 a.m.

Bruce Dayton, an art collector and businessman who helped turn his family's Minneapolis department store into a national retail empire and saw his son Mark become governor of Minnesota, died Friday. He was 97.

One of the most influential Minnesotans of the 20th century, Dayton used his money and influence to build up the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Walker Art Center and other Twin Cities cultural institutions, although he never felt comfortable with the accolades his generosity brought.

"Bruce said the greatest work for business is to revitalize our cities, economically, culturally and socially," said Bob MacGregor, who ran the Dayton Hudson Foundation in the late 1960s and worked closely with the family. Dayton always operated with a strong moral sense, he added.

Dayton's,Southdale Center, Edina
Dayton's at Southdale Center, Edina, 1964.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In 1950, Dayton and his four brothers inherited the Dayton Co., the Minneapolis department store founded by their grandfather. The brothers worked together as a team and never tried to outshine each other. Instead, they shared the work and played to their strengths.

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"The brothers individually never took credit for things," said Jim McComb, a retail consultant who worked directly under Bruce Dayton in the early 70s. "They had a unified approach, and it was a collective enterprise."

Bruce, a hard worker known to prefer the stairs to the elevator, was the finance guy, a talent that seemed to come naturally. He could recall talking about stocks and bonds with his father at age 5 or 6, said Ellen Green, who co-authored several books with Dayton. An English major at Yale University, he loved to read the Wall Street Journal.

The financial acumen he developed ended up serving him well. The Daytons' business prospered. From the single store, the brothers created a retail empire that spawned Target Corp., now the nation's second largest discount retailer, and Southdale in Edina, the first enclosed, air-conditioned mall.

Along the way the brothers championed the importance of charitable giving. Bruce Dayton carried out that mission personally, contributing millions of dollars of his fortune to local institutions.

Bruce Dayton, left, then MIA board president
Russell Plimpton, seated, who led the Minneapolis Institute of Art for 34 years, Richard Davis, right, then-senior curator, and Bruce Dayton, left, board president, sat in a gallery on Jan. 12, 1955.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Dayton was most associated with the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where he became a trustee at age 24 and donated tens of millions of dollars in artworks during his lifetime.

In 1992, Dayton toured an exhibition at the art center with Minnesota Public Radio host Paula Schroeder. The show featured many of his gifts.

Asked if he had an annual budget for art spending, Dayton replied, "No. If I had, I would've gone over it."

His approach, though, was anything but spendthrift.

"Most items I bought for very modest amounts," he said then as he walked the museum. "There are items here I paid $5 for. Some I paid more. I didn't reach for high prices. I reached for things I liked."

Some of Dayton's greatest contributions to the art center were in the field of Chinese art. His wife Ruth's passion for Asian philosophy sparked his interest.

He was an unusually egoless art collector, said Bob Jacobsen, curator emeritus at the art center who worked closely with Dayton over decades.

"Bruce, philosophically, did not compete with the museum," Jacobsen said. "He is not a typical collector that way who buys what he likes, stockpiles it in the home or the garage. He thinks about the museum first. And that means the public, the very public you're trying to invite in."

Bruce Dayton, seated, at his 91st birthday party
Bruce Dayton, seated, at his 91st birthday party on August 27, 2009. Behind him are his grandson Eric, Eric's wife Cory, grandson Andrew Dayton and son, Gov. Mark Dayton.
Courtesy Mark Dayton campaign | 2009

Dayton was so humble about his contributions, that he often spurned commemorative plaques honoring him, Jacobsen added.

On one occasion, however, the art center board insisted on having one made to mark his service to the museum. They held a small event in his honor.

Asked to make a few comments, Jacobsen said Dayton told those gathered it wasn't necessary to be honored, especially in the rotunda, one of the most prominent parts of the museum. Furthermore, Dayton teased, the plaque they gave him was too large and they shouldn't have gotten one made of marble.

"Marble was too expensive, a little ostentatious. Thank you very much, applause, and he left," said Jacobsen. "None of this was snide, it was very sincere. And you had to believe him. And you had to laugh."

Bruce Dayton is survived by his wife, Ruth Stricker Dayton, and four children, including Gov. Mark Dayton, along with 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Gov. Dayton late Friday expressed gratitude to those who sent their condolences for this father. "In his memory, please do something to help someone in need," he said.

A memorial service originally planned for Friday has been rescheduled to 4 p.m. Thursday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.