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Picasso Goes to Work

Lean times have pushed the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to become more enterprising. You may never think of museums the same way again.

Picasso Goes to Work
Photo by A. Steinberg/Sidecar

(page 1 of 2)

It’s noon on a Wednesday, and I’m crouched in the back of a bright-orange school bus, looking through a sliding half-window from which a thousand spitballs have surely been launched. The last time I rode a bus, I had to dodge 11-year-old miscreants furtively lighting hairspray on fire.

But this is a Grown-Up Field Trip, organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and my fellow passengers are not juvenile delinquents but nattily dressed professionals, picked up in downtown Minneapolis for a door-to-door lunchtime arts getaway. The phrases “I can’t remember the last time I was on a school bus!” and “Jeez, this brings back memories!” can be heard up and down the bus. Before long, we’re at the doors of the MIA, greeted by a trio of cheerful docents.

We’re led on a power-tour of More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness, an exhibit that plays on the Stephen Colbert–coined term for the present-day slipperiness of facts and reality. At the end, we’re each handed an “adult Lunchables”—a box of gourmet cheese and crackers, salami, and mini-pickles—and loaded back on the bus. We munch happily as the bus returns downtown, and everyone is back at work by 1 p.m.

The Grown-Up Field Trip was the vision of Katie Hill, the MIA’s newly appointed audience-engagement specialist, as a crafty way to bring in new audiences. “I love getting people to connect with the objects,” Hill says, “but in order for people to connect to the art, you need to get them in the door.” Simple as that. And yet, at this moment in American culture, getting people in the door of an art museum is not as straightforward as it once was.

A recent National Endowment for the Arts report concluded that the group of Americans who regularly attend art institutions is both shrinking and becoming less active. Plus, audience members today have ever-increasing ways to spend their time and hard-earned cash—why schlep to see a colonial tea service when you can watch a cat riding a Roomba from the comfort of your treadmill desk?

Harder still is bringing in dollars. Public and corporate support is slackening. For the first time in modern American history, younger middle-class arts patrons are not expected to build wealth as their parents and grandparents did, a tipping point for museums that rely on goodwill for bequeathed artworks or the funds to acquire them. Across cultural institutions, funding has dipped to the point that a powerhouse museum like the Art Institute of Chicago has been compelled to raise its admission twice in four years.

This month, the MIA opens It’s New/It’s Now: Recent Gifts of Contemporary Prints and Drawings, an exhibit showcasing a remarkable number of recent bequests. These gifts, however, have come with a stinging reality: the museum’s benefactors are literally dying off.

In the director’s office at the MIA, Kaywin Feldman seems animated by art, whirring about her business in knee-high, black-leather boots with pink, blue, and yellow shapes stitched to the sides. Lured to the MIA five years ago from the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, she has a big-picture view of what’s happening to cultural institutions. “We have to start by thinking about the history of cities,” she says, noting that most major American museums are about a hundred years old, built “at a time when cities were coming into their own.” Every great city needed a zoo, a museum, and an orchestra, and funding these institutions was a way to be part of a community. Philanthropists donated a wing or a lobby, becoming proud parts of the very structure itself. “It was a way,” Feldman says, “to stake your claim.”

Today, people are giving differently. Younger donors want data about what their money is accomplishing and perceive themselves as investors rather than philanthropists, Feldman says. She sees this shift as an opportunity, and points to Kiva, the micro-finance platform, as a potential model for museums. Through Kiva, individuals make micro-loans to entrepreneurs and can track how each loan is used. What if museum patrons could “invest” in a particular exhibit and monitor how that money is spent? This type of engagement is “sticky,” Feldman says, and keeps the cost of entry low: Kiva loans can be as small as $25.

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