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Prize Acquisition

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.

Prize Acquisition
Photo by David Bowman

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She must have known things weren’t going to go her way when a man in the audience pumped his fist in the air, Black Panthers style, and held it there for two hours. He was perched in the front row of the auditorium at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of about 250 people who had filled the place to standing-room-only capacity. They were here to interrogate her. To inform Kaywin Feldman, the new director of the MIA, that she wasn’t going to change things without a fight.

The familiar, stolid columns outside the entrance to the south Minneapolis museum reflected none of the commotion. The usual weekend crowds rushed through, on their way to bask before Rembrandt’s Lucretia or Monet’s Grainstack, Sun in the Mist. No one stopped to wonder why manifestos were being distributed near the auditorium or why a small sign was pinned to the back of a man’s jacket: “We need the MAEP; we need Turnquist.”

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts opened in 1915, consisting mostly of small galleries and an art school that later moved out and became the adjacent Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The MIA isn’t the oldest public gallery in the state—that honor belongs to the Walker Art Center. But it is now the largest by far, possessing more than 80,000 objects, comparable to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and about three times as large as collections in similar-sized metropolitan areas, such as St. Louis and Seattle. There are 3,000 Japanese woodblock prints, nearly 100 etchings by James McNeill Whistler, two rooms shipped over in their entirety from historic Chinese homes, a fully furnished Bauhaus kitchen, the complete Purcell-Cutts Prairie School home, and one near-mint-condition 1948 Tatra automobile from Czechoslovakia, resembling a Beetle with a mohawk.

The MIA is classified as an encyclopedic museum, meaning it attempts to showcase the entire world of art, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, across cultures, mediums, and history. By implication, then, it is a family museum, and the debate carrying on in the auditorium may have been the greatest controversy at the museum since the 2001 exhibition Acres of Art, which featured cages filled with live chickens.

Feldman is not a tall woman, perhaps five-foot-five—about the height of one of her favorite pieces at the museum, the calm, sun-dappled Dining Room in the Country, a 1913 painting by Pierre Bonnard. But in the auditorium that morning, Feldman appeared even smaller behind the podium. One inquisitor compared her management style to the heavy-handedness of President George W. Bush, and the crowd demanded a return to the old ways. Which would have meant rolling back almost all the progress Feldman believed she had made since coming to the museum seven months earlier. Which was the last thing she had in mind.

When Feldman arrived in Minneapolis last winter, it seemed like a reward, like she might finally get a break. At 41, she had already spent more than a dozen years heading museums in need of overhauls, places with morale problems or poor community outreach. The MIA didn’t appear to need any miracles. After a series of building projects dating to 1992, the museum had finally swept out the dust when the latest addition, the Michael Graves–designed Target Wing, opened in 2006. Feldman’s predecessor, William Griswold, had shepherded $103 million in new donations to the bank, concluding the museum’s largest campaign in its history. Membership and attendance were solid, and the museum’s endowment, at around $191 million, was in a dead heat with that of the Walker Art Center for the largest of any arts organization in the region. The MIA seemed poised to fulfill the promise of its collection and assume its rightful place among the top tier of American art museums.

For all its growth, however, the museum was paradoxically petrified. Time had always moved slowly at the MIA. It was among the first museums in the country to drop its admission fee, in 1989, and was quick to devise an online gallery for viewing objects in the collection, yet as late as the 1990s administrators were debating whether to get a fax machine. It was a dinosaur bogged down under its own weight—“too slow to make decisions, too bureaucratic, too risk-averse,” Feldman recalls.

Feldman became the museum’s fourth acting director in five years. She faced four major curatorial vacancies. The expansions had frazzled the staff, the curators constantly reorganizing the collection to keep up. Evan Maurer, the rugby-playing art historian who helmed the museum for 16 years before retiring in 2005 due to debilitating health issues, was somewhat incapacitated during his last years there, occasionally conducting meetings while resting on his back or knees. “In the general staff mind, he was not really accessible or visible,” says Matthew Welch, the veteran Asian-arts curator who was promoted last winter to assistant director of curatorial affairs. Griswold, says Welch, had been “a breath of fresh air…he was beginning to turn the attitude of the institution around.” And then he was gone.

Despite its treasure, the MIA has remained relatively unfamiliar to non-specialists outside Minnesota. “The MIA is a hidden gem nationally,” says Olga Viso, director of the Walker Art Center. Touring exhibitions organized by the MIA, which would boost the museum’s reputation, have been few and far between. The Walker, notes Viso, frequently tours exhibitions, most recently to Mexico City and Dallas–Fort Worth, garnering an international reputation that outshines the MIA, despite its much smaller collection. In fact, the MIA hasn’t been creating many of its own exhibitions at all: From 2000 through this year, only about 17 percent of the MIA’s exhibitions will have been self-generated. “They’ve focused on stewardship of the collection, which is a good thing,” says Viso. “But it’s seen as more insular. Kaywin has a great opportunity, through scholarship and presentation, to make the well-kept secret more visible.”

Dispelling provincialism isn’t just a matter of pride. Simply put, there is only so much historical art in the world and an increasing number of well-heeled collectors who want it. For a museum to stay in the game, it must rely more than ever on the generosity of such collectors, on persuading them to donate their artworks. The argument is that much more persuasive, particularly for out-of-town collectors, if the museum has a reputation. Similarly, other museums are more likely to lend works to significant institutions, and so on. Prestige, in other words, translates directly to the visitor experience.

Ultimately, museums are in the transformation business, Feldman likes to say, and in the best of them, standing before a painting or a sculpture, the scales should fall from your eyes as new perspectives are acquired. Such elevation has always been the goal of the MIA—and the desire of the community that called for its construction: “Industry without art is brutality,” cried the Minneapolis Tribune in an 1882 editorial, quoting Aristotle. Yet if the MIA was no longer transforming itself, how could it expect to transform visitors? Something, Feldman knew, had to give.

Feldman grew up the daughter of a military man, which is to say she grew up all over: Boston, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and ultimately London. Her parents marched their children through every museum they encountered, and it was particularly easy to fall in love with museums in London—the British Museum is generally considered the largest in the world. Feldman worked at the British Museum while earning two graduate degrees, from the University of London in museum management and from the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in London in art history (she defends the seeming dryness of her thesis subject, 16th-century Flemish art, by pointing out that she focused on satyrs, those sex fiends of the era’s iconography—half-men, half-goat with giant penises). In the course of her studies, Feldman frequently traveled to nearby Amsterdam, the home of Rembrandt, where, like an archaeologist, she sought out the original studios of the city’s most famous painters and the galleries where they first showed. To her, art wasn’t just something to hang on a wall but a powerful source of almost spiritual nourishment, and she was drawn to its origins like a pilgrim to holy places.

Eventually, Feldman was hired as a curator at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science and within the year was promoted. At age 29, she was one of the youngest museum directors in the country. “She was young, educated, and energetic,” a columnist with the Fresno Bee recently remarked. “She had traveled the world. She read Greek, Latin, and Egyptian hieroglyphics and spoke several languages. She was evidence, in the eyes of supporters, that Fresno wasn’t a cultural backwater…. [She] had Fresno eating out of the palm of her hand.”

Feldman quickly won over the board of directors at the museum, impressing her staff. “We were always awestruck by Kaywin because she managed to command the board in a way that was really exciting—they were so on board with what she had to say and what she wanted to do,” says Leann Standish, whom Feldman hired as an assistant to the development director in Fresno and, recently, to head the newly created department of development and external affairs at the MIA, merging marketing and fundraising. Donald Munro, a friend of Feldman’s from those days and a Fresno Bee columnist, compares Feldman to, of all people, Henry VIII, known for his mastery of court politics and human nature. “I’m not saying Kaywin would pick a fight with the pope,” Munro says, “but she does have the ability to project a comforting sense of self-confidence.”

Feldman was so youthful then, relative to the folks whose approval she was seeking, that she soon developed an “ageless” style of comporting herself, Standish says. Not young, not old, just competent. “I’ve always described her as kind of buttoned-up. Kaywin’s very proper, very appropriate,” she says. Feldman typically arrives in her office at 6 a.m. She prefers plain, monotone suits—gray, red—and her hair, cut short and simple, is that of someone who has always been more comfortable gawking at things than being gawked at. She recalls that when she chose two paintings from the MIA’s collection for her office there, the curator informed her that they were both from the 1950s. “I guess I’m a ’50s kind of gal,” she jokes.

At the same time, her success has arguably derived from an ability to relate to the wide variety of people who come through a museum’s doors. “That includes a great knack for interacting with rich people,” says Munro, “an important attribute for a museum director. She fits smoothly into their world without making it seem like she’s trying too hard—yet she can turn around and go out with you to a dive bar and it would never seem like she’s slumming.”
“Once you know her, she lets her hair down,” says Standish. Feldman once dressed as a coquettish Eve for a Halloween party at the Fresno museum, complete with an apple and fake snake around her neck. She road-tripped through
Mississippi, supping on condensed Campbell’s tomato soup at a small-town diner. “Kaywin has a way of expressing her tremendous enthusiasm for art that never comes across as elitist or pretentious,” says Munro, “even while she’s elevating the conversation to higher levels.” He adds, “Except when she’s talking about Austin Powers. She loves Austin Powers.”

Whatever its origins, Feldman’s style has worked for her—and her museums. Three years after she improved the attendance and finances of the Fresno Met, she took over the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis. The Brooks had a stuffy reputation and was ignored by many Memphians. “Elitist across the board,” says one longtime observer. A former board member recalls: “You could walk into this institution and the only sound you would hear is that of your own feet walking across the rotunda.” By the time Feldman resigned last year to take the job in Minneapolis, the Brooks was a different institution. Attendance was up 35 percent. Membership had tripled. The budget had doubled. And a $5 million gift—the largest in the museum’s history—had been secured. Feldman was starting to be whispered about in museum circles as a wunderkind, a miracle worker.

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