The Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ prize acquisition is a savvy, press-shy, Austin Powers–loving wunderkind who has already revived two notable institutions. Kaywin Feldman’s job now? Turning the MIA into the next great American art museum.
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Feldman appeared to manage this stark transformation by simply giving the people what they wanted. Memphis has a mostly African-American population, but the Brooks had previously offered few exhibitions by black artists. Feldman changed that. The museum was formerly ridiculed as running one Old Masters show after another. Feldman changed that, too, showcasing contemporary artists—including local artists—and producing film series and plays at the Brooks.
“It was absolutely about engaging the community,” says Feldman. She frequently drops the modifier “absolutely” into conversation, as if she’s convinced, more than most people, of the certainty of things. And in this case, she’s at least mostly right. The city’s small avant-garde may not regard the changes as having gone far enough toward embracing edgy art—“There have been only two or three shows that I can remember having been excited about seeing there,” says Dwayne Butcher, a local artist and arts critic. But he admits these shows were in the last two years, suggesting the shift is paying off. Memphis is a conservative town, he says. For most locals, the changes were enough if not too much. When Feldman arranged for the purchase of a massive and dynamic contemporary sculpture—essentially a stack of video monitors—and placed it in the museum’s once-barren entrance rotunda, it was the most controversial thing she did in Memphis.
Behind the scenes, however, Feldman was fostering a small revolution in the way museums are run. Museums can resemble universities, with curators as professors, tucked into their own research. Feldman sought more synergy between departments, believing that if development, say, was cooperating with exhibitions, perhaps the search for money and the search for great art could be mutually enhanced. “Nothing that happens at a museum impacts solely one department,” says Marina Pacini, chief curator at the Brooks. “Each component is part of the product.”
Feldman tweaked the staffing structure at the Brooks until she found the people amenable to her plans (“She wasn’t afraid at all of ruffling feathers,” says one employee), then began creating a more holistic approach to running a museum. Key staff would meet weekly as a group, rather than individually reporting to Feldman, and the non-hierarchal structure lent itself to more communication between departments.
Pacini explains the advantages by citing a traveling exhibition of contemporary African photography that arrived at the Brooks with several decidedly adult images. At most museums, it would be the curators’ job to decide what to do about it, if anything. At the Brooks, the fundraisers got involved. “The development department had to go out and find the funding for this show,” says Pacini, “so we had a conversation about how this was going to be addressed with the funders and addressed in the installation.” They settled on a separate viewing area for the “potentially problematic” images such that anyone who so desired could go through the exhibition without seeing them. “In no way, shape, or form,” argues Pacini, “was the exhibition censored.”
The approach, along with Feldman’s personal appeal, proved so popular that it engendered a loyalty among staffers to their boss that, by all accounts, bordered on discipleship. “She’d make them work sometimes seven days a week,” says Memphis attorney Blanchard Tual, a former Brooks board member and a friend of Feldman. “And they’d not only do it but love doing it.”
“She was not a bull in a China shop,” says Jackie Nichols, director of a Memphis theater that collaborated with Feldman on plays at the museum. “She examined the community and the museum—what was working, what wasn’t—and before you knew it...it was her place.”
Feldman acted quickly after arriving in Minneapolis. Forty-five days into her tenure, Feldman had revamped the MIA organizational structure, creating a small management team empowered to guide the museum and shaving the number of direct reports to her from 17 to 7. She also hired the museum’s first curator of contemporary art, not to duplicate the Walker’s work but to slightly extend the MIA’s collection of historical art into the present day—showing “the continuity of culture,” as Feldman puts it, such as an exhibition of contemporary photography from India showing at the MIA next month.
By July, Feldman had outlined a new four-year strategic plan for the MIA. Notably, some typical museum benchmarks, such as attendance, are not given high priority. “If increasing attendance was the goal,” she says, “we’d be doing Lady Diana dresses.” Instead, this is the plan of a museum comfortable in its local embrace and aiming for broader regard. The plan prioritizes the collection.
The MIA’s new $50 million acquisition endowment will be tapped to judiciously purchase artworks that will turn heads or fill gaps in already impressive areas. This was always a goal for the museum—“Make your standard high and live to it,” advised James J. Hill, an early patron. “This institute is to pitch the key. Do not pitch the key too low.” But given art prices, this counsel hasn’t been easy to follow. Feldman points to a prized Francis Bacon painting at the MIA as an example of the savvy acquisitions she has in mind; in 1959, a number of paintings by the controversial artist went on the market but only one sold—this one—for a reputed $1,300 to the MIA.
Feldman also hopes to increase the percentage of touring exhibitions created by the MIA and boost the number of scholarly publications written by MIA curators about the collection, enhancing its reputation among the world’s museums. Such a focus promises a new era for Minnesotans, as the opportunities for altering one’s perspective through art multiplies. Imagine, says Welch, not only seeing the work of a great artist but also every artist who was significantly influenced by him or her and vice versa.
“We’re entering into the first strategic plan in my time here that doesn’t involve building a building,” says Welch, an 18-year veteran at the MIA. “My hope is that we can turn that energy into being a museum.”
It may not prove so easy, however, simply as a matter of a scale. The Memphis museum had only 60 employees and 8,000 artworks, few enough that the MIA’s prints and drawing department alone has more than five times as many. The MIA, by contrast, has roughly 250 employees and more than 80,000 artworks. If the relatively small size of the Brooks lends itself to a holistic approach, the immensity of the MIA lends itself to specialization—and to inertia.
Feldman’s reorganization has caught some staffers off-guard, as much for its dismantling of entrenched power structures as its pace. To appoint Welch, Feldman appeared to reach around a couple of curators with even more seniority, including paintings curator Patrick Noon (who did not respond to several interview requests for this story). Welch says it “took someone from the outside,” meaning Feldman, to push past the old ways of doing things at the MIA, and that his personal career goals simply “melded very seamlessly” with Feldman’s objectives. Other staffers, while acknowledging Welch’s talent and ambition—some privately even welcoming the shift toward more egalitarianism—feel a bit put on their heels, adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward Feldman’s overhaul.
In July, Feldman hit the first speed bump on her road to revamp. Stewart Turnquist, who had coordinated the museum’s Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program for 32 years, abruptly resigned. The MAEP had remained unchanged since its founding at the museum in the 1970s: Led by a museum staffer, formerly Turnquist, a volunteer panel of artists selects a small number of their local peers each year to exhibit their work at the museum. Past shows have featured Alec Soth, the former MIA staffer turned star photographer, and Chris Mars, the former Replacements drummer turned painter.
Like all non-management staff, Turnquist had been informed this spring that he would no longer report to Feldman but to one of the five new assistant directors, in this case former Walker staffer Elizabeth Armstrong, head of exhibitions and programs and the MIA’s new curator of contemporary art. Tellingly, Armstrong’s new office was built with a door directly into the office of the MAEP—a sign of the new openness and departmental cooperation that Feldman hopes to foster. Turnquist viewed the changes as a downgrade in departmental status, and a door left open to possible censorship.
After Turnquist resigned, supporters of the MAEP program grew concerned about its future. Feldman invited them to meet with her in the museum auditorium on a Saturday morning in July. Feldman assured the raucous crowd that the MAEP panel would retain its independence—no one would alter its decisions. But she also clarified that the MAEP, or any department, is not separate from the museum; synergy and transparency would extend even to the museum’s most outlying corners.
“Kaywin is a risk-taker,” says Standish, the museum’s new head of development and external affairs. “She’s encouraging stepping outside typical ambitions.”
Feldman is not eager for a fight.
A fan of architecture (she’s married to an architecture professor), she admires balance—between form and function, excess and modesty. On a tour of her favorite pieces at the MIA, she lingers at a 17th-century Dutch still-life. In such pieces, the Dutch painters were “absolutely showing off,” she explains, the difficult renderings of such things as lemons and glass exquisitely executed. Yet she admires that the artists also preached self-control, in this case through the inclusion of a timepiece, a symbol of life’s fragility. “Kaywin doesn’t act capriciously,” says Brian Palmer, the head of the MIA board of directors. “To be a strong leader, you don’t make decisions just to shake things up.”
At the same time, says Palmer, “You can’t be hesitant in making decisions because someone doesn’t agree with it. I think that’s important in our museum in particular, given our commitment to the broader community.” Blanchard Tual, a friend of Feldman, believes she is “basically a shy person” who comes alive around art, and beneath art’s rapturous hold lies a no-nonsense vision. “She’s not a Southern magnolia,” Tual says. “She’s a steely, tough, smart woman.”
If Feldman is unlikely to shrink from opening up the MIA, it is because she believes that art, early on, changed her life. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan not in art history but archaeology, and was planning to continue such studies in graduate school when she took a year off to travel through Europe and the Middle East—a solo trip through the ancient Roman Empire. After only three months, however, she grew tired of the hassles of vacationing as a young woman alone—“I had traveled a little too adventurously,” she allows—and headed home toward London.
An Italian train strike cut the journey short. “They threw us out of the train at seven in the morning in Trieste and I had just a thousand lira, which bought me a bus ticket to Padua,” Feldman recalls. “I was tired, needed a shower and a good meal, but I knew I had an hour before the Scrovegni Chapel closed, so I just threw my bag down and went.” Standing before Giotti’s 13th century frescoes, she was “immobilized by wonder,” she says. She couldn’t believe humans had produced something so beautiful. And she decided to change her studies to art. “I’m a real advocate now—as the staff can attest,” she says with a grin, “for the transformational power of art.”
Tim Gihring is the senior writer and arts editor at Minnesota Monthly.