Behind the Scenes with Minneapolis Institute of Art's New Pieces

Mia chief curator Matthew Welch with items from the collection of Mary Griggs Burke, photo by tj turner

It’s fitting that inclement winter weather led to Minneapolis Institute of Art nabbing the gorgeous, sensual portrait that will be appearing in the museum’s halls later this year. (The institution is rebranding to drop the “s” in “Arts” and adopt the nickname “Mia.”) Patrick Noon, Mia’s curator of paintings, was in New York City in January, for Old Masters’ Week at the auction houses. One day there was “a colossal snowstorm that shut the city down,” Noon recalls, speaking with dapper understatement laced with a hint of mischief.

There had been an event planned at the gallery of famed art dealer Jack Kilgore that afternoon and evening, in which the star curators of the art world would get first look (and first dibs) at paintings just arrived on the market. But as the storm took hold, taxis and trains stopped running in the city. It looked as though the show would be a dud.

Young Woman in Undergarments by wilhelm list, photo courtesy minneapolis institute of art

“This would be nothing in Minnesota,” Noon thought. He called the gallery and asked if anyone would be there if he braved the elements; when someone agreed to meet him, Noon trudged through the snow. And when he arrived, there it was: the aptly titled Young Woman in Under-Garments by Austrian Wilhelm List, hanging over the showroom mantelpiece. It was painted in 1910-11, just recently sold from a private collection, and Noon was the first curator to see it.

“Right,” he said. “Let’s have that one sent to Minneapolis.”

Mia curators’ jobs involve an astonishing level of expertise, international relationships, and vision. When it comes to acquiring the rare and precious objects that are the Holy Grail of their profession, they have an unusual and varied skill set: knowing art markets, possessing long-vision patience, and believing that a moment of good luck will yield a treasure that may be viewed in Mia’s halls for decades to come.

For chief curator Matthew Welch, his most recent acquisition represents a quarter-century dedication to cultivating a relationship with a single wealthy collector, Mary Griggs Burke, who was born in St. Paul but subsequently lived her adult life in New York. Later this year, Mia’s collection of Japanese art will be augmented by a gift from her estate that includes more than 670 individual objects from a range of 2,500 years, valued at $35 million, as well as $12.5 million for future acquisitions.

In its temporary home, the Burke collection is crated, numbered, and fills all ends of a spacious storage room. Welch, dressed for work in a suit and Batman t-shirt, describes a relationship with Burke that culminated in this gift yet also involves losing a comrade and colleague with her recent death.

“Don’t let a curator tell you that cultivating a donor is work. It’s not, it’s a joy,” he says. “You’re talking to a person who has a passion for the same thing you’re passionate about. Mrs. Burke was very smart about what she collected. She never bought anything she didn’t like, and this collection reflects her taste.”

Mia’s 14-curator team represents an array of specialties that reflect the broader art world as well as needs at Mia. Welch was hired initially in 1990 to fill a void in Japanese art (even then, the institution knew that Burke’s collection would be a long-term acquisition of historic proportions). Jill Ahlberg Yohe, who has been on staff for a year, adds a specialty in Native American art, which comes with a specific set of considerations.

“The finest historic work is incredibly expensive, and very hard to acquire,” Yohe says. “Yet contemporary work is in a very exciting moment. It’s my job to do both, to find those exceptional pieces from both periods.”

The art world isn’t the Wild West of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yohe points to a 1970 UNESCO convention that ethically binds museum curators to not pursue acquiring items from around the world that lack provenance, or verifiable record of their origin. The agreement aims to protect from fraud as well as theft and looting of archeological sites—inarguably good ends—but as a result, the market in antiquities has become more rarified and expensive.

Pocahontas Necklace with Pendant by keri ataumbi and jamie okuma, photo courtesy minneapolis institute of art

This morally laudable international agreement has had unintended but also fortunate side effects. Yohe points to a set of jewelry created just last year and first displayed this summer at Mia—historic portraits in beads on buckskin by Native American artists Keri Ataumbi and Jamie Okuma—as examples of world-class new work curators are freed to pursue by not focusing on antiquities or remakes of traditional styles. Legitimizing the market in the very old, then, has opened it up for the very new.

African-art curator Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers leads the way down to a room in the inner depths of Mia, where new works are photographed before joining the collection for public view. He has had to give up on his pursuit of specific items because of the 1970 convention, but recently found one remarkable new item with proper documentation by patiently scanning the international auction and dealer market while waiting for the right piece to become available.

Grootaers, whose piercing eyes and perpetually amazed expression could get him cast as an art expert in the next Indiana Jones sequel, has been on a quest for a traditional monkey statue from the Baule people of CÔte d’Ivoire. The problem has been that previous pieces he’s perused have lacked just the right details—the snarl on the monkey’s face, the empty cup he holds, the form of the animal the primate stands upon.  

baule Monkey Figure with Panther, photo courtesy minneapolis institute of art

He’s finally found the right monkey, one with a combination of artistic grace and the right paper trail to meet curatorial standards. And what a creepy guy this statue is, at least to Western eyes.

“This is typically used in ceremonies of divination, or initiation into the occult sciences,” Grootaers says. “Or in possession cults: Someone would get possessed and dance as an oracle of a particular spirit or God … this is not something that would happen very often. A few times a year, always hidden from the eyes of
the uninitiated.”

Grootaers acknowledges the monkey’s wooden back and shoulders, which bear a thin crust of what seems to be blood and feathers. “It’s a container for a spirit, by the way,” he adds with a sidelong glance.

Curators’ careers are in part defined by what they manage to acquire for their museums—Welch talks about Mia’s Japanese screen depicting the Uji Bridge (“mindblowing and so darned contemporary”), while Noon mentions the lush, poetic Claude Lorraine Pastoral Landscape (“if I never acquired another work of art for this museum, I’d die a happy hero”). Yohe is looking ahead, with a Navajo chief’s blanket (the finest of which have gone for more than $2 million in recent years) topping her wish list.

And while it might be true that we make our own luck, museum curators at the highest level exemplify the concept a lot more than the rest of us. “It’s typical that if you’re in the right place at the right time, stuff happens,” Noon says. “The most wonderful things that I’ve acquired have always been fortuitous, you see.”

Get a 3-D look at Baule Monkey Figure with Panther

See more of Mia’s fall collection: