“100 Years and Counting”: The next chapter of the Minnesota Museum of American Art

Chris Atkins pulls out a wire rack to reveal paintings currently in storage while the Minnesota Museum of American Art’s new venue is being built // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Racks stuffed with paintings, shelves holding all shapes and sizes of sculptures, and artist-designed furniture fill a fluorescent-lit warehouse. The sheer amount of art packed into this single room is nearly impossible to take in; to the untrained eye, it looks random and chaotic. But for the staff of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, it’s a carefully organized, painstakingly catalogued collection.

“If you were here a month ago, we would hardly be able to stand right here,” says Chris Atkins, curator of exhibitions and public programs. Behind us is a large drafting table where incoming paintings by Wanda Gág are being assessed and prepared for storage. Around us, bronze statues stand alongside electric ’70s pop art, mixed in with massive mid-century oil paintings and modern glass sculpture. This otherwise nondescript room is the longtime home of museum’s permanent collection, much of which is about to see the light of day for the first time in a generation.

Center is a piece of artwork titled "Untitled (Bottlecaps)" by Frank Gaard // Photo by Kevin Kramer

A piece of artwork titled “Untitled (Bottlecaps)” by Frank Gaard hangs above archive shelving units // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Since its inception as the St. Paul School of Fine Arts in 1894, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, recently dubbed The M, has called several buildings large and small across the Twin Cities home. The list includes the Landmark Center where the museum lived for 20 years, and the History Theatre where it only lasted five years—as well as multiple off-site exhibition spaces. But after receiving $6 million from a state bonding bill earlier this summer, along with fundraising efforts and substantial philanthropic donations, the museum finally has the financial backing to make its current home in downtown St. Paul’s Pioneer Endicott building—knock on wood—permanent.

“If you look at the history, [support] kind of went up and down depending on where we were,” Atkins says. “But now where we are at Pioneer Endicott, we’ve gotten more support than we’ve ever had to really stay put, in terms of building the space, and in terms of making it custom-built to what our needs are.”

This new chapter in The M’s long history will introduce three phases of a $23 million build-out, the first of which will make its public debut December 2. The first phase will reintroduce The M to the community, starting with the exhibition, “100 Years and Counting,” which will feature select works from the museum’s varied collection of over 4,500 pieces.

“It’s 100 years of being around and continuing to look at the past, and going off into the future as well,” says Atkins. “Being able to tell a story with a specific work, or a series of works, is usually where an exhibition begins.”

This reintroduction is largely centered around efforts to bring the historic St. Paul museum into the 21st century with a focus on community outreach, as well as its continued mission to stay true to its roots in education through its learning and creativity center.

“I always like to tell people that we’re storytellers. We’re telling a story about Minnesota and Minnesota artists.”

– Chris Atkins

In addition to “100 Years,” the build-out will add an indoor courtyard to Pioneer Endicott where artists will install large three-dimensional pieces visible from the skyway overlooking the courtyard. “I think having a new space means really refortifying and reestablishing ourselves, both the historical things and the new efforts that we’re trying to [introduce],” says Atkins.

Following the unveiling of phase one this year, phase two will result in a large permanent gallery space, giving the museum a chance to exhibit more of its collection than ever before. With many of the selected works seeing daylight for the first time after more than a generation in storage, a key task is preparing them for conservation, a process carefully overseen by The M’s registrar, Mai Vang. Vang assesses every item introduced into the museum’s collection with a process called “condition reporting,” and works with individual conservators who specialize in different mediums to prep works for exhibition.

Mai Vang checks on the condition of some archived pieces of art // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Mai Vang checks on the condition of archived pieces of art // Photo by Kevin Kramer

“When we’re pulling our objects out, we’re [also] doing our own internal research,” Vang says. “So it goes into learning more about where the pieces came from to figuring out how it ties in with all the other pieces that are in the collection.”

The M’s collection spans from the early 19th century all the way to 2015 and includes everything from bronze sculptures by Paul Manship to 1970s pop art by Frank Gaard to digitally-stored photographs by Ken Gonzales Day. As curator of exhibitions, it’s Atkins’ job to see the thread that runs between them all—a seemingly impossible task to the casual viewer, but a limitless opportunity for storytelling to Atkins. “I always like to tell people that we’re storytellers. We’re telling a story about Minnesota and Minnesota artists,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be old stories, it can be new stories as well.”

Mia Vang shows off a photograph of // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Mia Vang presents a photograph titled “Brian Williston, North Dakota” by Alec Soth // Photo by Kevin Kramer

And that is where The M excels compared to the larger, more well-known museums around town. Whereas Mia is sitting on a massive collection of some 80,000 artworks, The M’s relatively modest collection tells a more locally focused story, and their curatorial team seeks out diverse works by artists across Minnesota’s immigrant communities in a concerted effort to engage the state’s various populations and involve them in the conversation.

One such example of a community partnership fostered by the museum traces back to Vang. In addition to her duties as registrar, Vang also works as the director of the Hmong Museum, which has led The M to have a close relationship with St. Paul’s large Hmong community.

“This is a chance for us to really present the work of the Hmong community and invite the Hmong community in, and share the platform that we have,” Vang says. Highlighting this type of work was a recent program focused on the tradition of oral storytelling in the Hmong community. The piece featured a stage performance with a Hmong spoken word artist and his grandmother. As his grandmother engaged in the traditional practice of sung poetry, the artist reacted to it in spoken word to the audience, reshaping it and putting the traditional practice into modern context. “She’s passing on this story to him and he’s retelling it to an audience in a very new way,” Vang explains.

It’s through relationships like this that The M strives to set itself apart, not only in better representing Minnesota’s myriad communities but in involving them in a dialogue. Along these lines is an upcoming exhibition by Native American artist Brad Kahlhamer, which Atkins says has sparked an ongoing conversation with the state’s Native American community.

A piece titled "Pillow Book" by Helen Lee. It's 18 layers of glass, each inscribed with a dream someone has had of Lee, compressed into the shape of a Chinese funerary pillow // Photos by Kevin Kramer

A piece titled “Pillow Book” by Helen Lee is composed of 18 layers of glass, each inscribed with a dream someone has had of Lee, compressed into the shape of a Chinese funerary pillow // Photos by Kevin Kramer

In such efforts to involve the cultural groups behind the art, The M is very cognizant of its role in showcasing pieces that often represent complex issues. “We’ve been thinking about some big questions as it relates to America—what is an American museum nowadays?” Atkins asks. “With the things that people have done, can we do something that’s a little different? In some cases that’s taking on a topic that might be difficult. We haven’t shied away from that either.”

As for what the future holds, the museum aims to use much the recently acquired funds to embrace previously inaccessible possibilities, in hopes of reaching new audiences in its own community.

Says Atkins, “A lot of the work we’re doing now—not just with our exhibitions, but with our communications and learning and creativity center—everything we do is geared towards embracing the people who know what The M is and have been our long-term members for many years, but we’re also thinking differently about ‘who are the people we haven’t reached out to yet?’”