Water Colors

How an acclaimed marine-art museum wound up in Winona

A FEW YEARS AGO, Bob Kierlin wanted a painting. A really big one. The Winona resident—a former state senator and founder of the building-materials manufacturer Fastenal—had a blank wall in his home, 14 feet long by 8 feet tall, and he wanted to fill it. But there was a problem: He didn’t know anything about art.

He typed the words “painting” and “huge” into Google, but didn’t find anything that caught his eye. He browsed eBay. Still nothing. Then one day, while paging through an art magazine, Kierlin stumbled across a painting, by John Stobart, of an old clipper ship on the sea. It looked cool. It was for sale. And it was big—5 by 8 feet. He bought it.

That first painting inspired Kierlin and his wife, Mary Burrichter, to purchase some 400 other works of marine art and to bankroll the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, which opened a year ago on the banks of the Mississippi River in Winona. Initially proposed as a place to dock a 70-year-old dredge boat, with accompanying exhibits on life at sea, the museum now centers on the Kierlin-Burrichter art collection.

Among the works are watercolors, oil paintings, and seascapes that document the evolution of marine art over the centuries, chronicling how artists have depicted changing technology from sails to steam. The collection includes art by the genre’s top practitioners—Francis Silva, Jack Gray—as well as works by Winslow Homer and Claude Monet, realist paintings that may be minor in the two artists’ oeuvres but help the museum draw more than just marine-art fanatics.

The Kierlin-Burrichter cache has quickly become one of the largest of its kind in North America. Its quality, measured in terms of the artists’ reputations as well as the monetary value of the works, rivals that of the top American marine museums, all of which are decades older. The collection also includes such marine ephemera as ship wheels, telescopes, compasses, maps, and personal letters written by Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British naval hero.

The museum has become a notable attraction in a city struggling to promote its riverfront. It draws support from more than 1,200 members and has earned $200,000 in donations from local foundations. Situated near several grain elevators, the museum also showcases the Mississippi. Tall windows look out at the river and a walkway stretches nearly to the water, weaving through landscapes of native perennials and prairie grasses. And, of course, there is an empty dock where a decommissioned dredger, the 287-foot William A. Thompson, will be moored as an exhibit next spring.

The museum makes do with just four full-time employees. Still, its leaders have expansive goals, including two new galleries, a greater focus on regional and modern work, and the acquisition of exhibits that go beyond the sea into the broader realm of human experience, demonstrating that marine art isn’t just for river buffs and collectors. A recent exhibit on the Titanic, for example, featured artifacts and artworks that told a story of human curiosity and audacity, of exploration and a failed attempt to conquer nature. That’s not just a story about the sea—it’s a story about the relationship between humans and their environment.