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.

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.

 

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.

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