The Art of More

The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s new leader believes the timing is right to rejuvenate the 123-year-old museum as a world-class exhibitor—and he has the fresh capital and gallery space to get the arty party started.

ON THE MORNING of June 11, William Griswold, the new director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, will be in the park across the street from the museum, flipping pancakes. The MIA is opening its $50 million Michael Graves-designed expansion with an outdoor public breakfast, and for many of the museum’s patrons, this will be their first taste of Griswold’s leadership style: a flapjack.

It’s a little misleading. Earlier that weekend, Griswold will be mingling at another expansion party, this time in black tie. The fact that he’s comfortable in both crowds, the pancake-eating public and the cake-eating elite, might just be the key to the 45-year-old administrator’s—and the MIA’s—success over the next few years.

The museum is at a “transformative moment,” Griswold believes. The expansion adds 34 new galleries—40 percent more display room. Enlarged exhibit halls can host grander shows, the kind you might see at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. And, in its most significant foray yet into 20th century art, the MIA has stuffed the addition with modern art and design, including a streamlined vintage automobile and a complete Bauhaus-style kitchen. Griswold will be judged by how well he parlays this metamorphosis into a greater reputation for the museum, which some believe could become the Met of the Midwest.

It helps that Griswold knows what a top-shelf museum should look like. From 2001 until last October, when he moved to Minneapolis, Griswold worked at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, most recently as its acting director. The Getty is the wealthiest arts institution anywhere, endowed with the fortune of the late oil tycoon for whom it is named. Within its palatial walls, the Getty contains some of the world’s great artistic treasures.

Of course, the Getty, as of late, may not be the best example of how an institution should conduct itself, having been accused of lavish spending, a dubious land sale, and the acquisition of stolen artifacts—everything short of using paintings as cafeteria trays. When his boss bailed in 2004, Griswold (who has not been accused of misconduct) found himself in the museum’s top spot, and was considered by many observers to be a strong candidate for the permanent position. But Griswold took himself out of the running last April. In July, he was snatched up by the MIA.

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight believes the MIA did well to attract Griswold—and, indeed, that it benefited from the Getty’s troubles. And it’s not as if Minneapolis was the only port in a storm—several museum directorships were open last year. Griswold chose the MIA, in part, because he feels the Twin Cities are ripe for an artistic renaissance. In fact, he says, with significant construction at the Walker Art Center, the Guthrie Theater, the Children’s Theatre Company, and now the MIA, it’s already begun. “What’s happening in Minneapolis is really without parallel in this country,” he says.

Griswold hopes that with the build-outs behind them, the area’s artistic leaders can begin to focus on collaboration—sharing more artworks, maybe even purchasing an expensive piece of art together. Kathy Halbreich, the Walker’s director, is already working with Griswold. “[He’s] one of the most buoyant, electric minds around,” she says.

Halbreich is impressed that Griswold is truly animated by art, gushing about obscure French artists as easily as he can delineate current administrative challenges. Many art centers, she says, are hiring directors who have terrific business chops but lack a curator’s soul. “I’m thrilled that Bill is both a really savvy leader and a connoisseur,” Halbreich says. He’s just the person, perhaps, to champion the MIA’s collection—now that a respectable portion of it is finally on the walls—to a wide range of new audiences.

THIS IS WHAT GRISWOLD INHERITS. One hundred thousand art objects. A nonprofit organization that’s been in the black for as long as anyone can remember. A capital campaign that so far has brought in more than $80 million. An institution that’s entitled to property tax money, amounting to some $6 million annually, since it’s lucky enough to be on a very short list of special taxing entities in Hennepin County (the Teachers’ Retirement Fund, for instance, is also on the list; the Walker Art Center is not). And, of course, the new expansion.

But art institutions nowadays must constantly change or risk becoming museums unto themselves. The MIA, in fact, has been evolving and growing for several decades, with the Graves addition just the latest and largest improvement.

In 1988, when Evan Maurer became director, he and his colleagues took a hard look at the museum—its galleries broken up by offices and storage facilities, its edifices musty and imposing—and came to one conclusion: the place was less cool than a Thomas Kinkade landscape painting. Even management was hopelessly old-fashioned. “We were debating whether to get a fax machine,” Maurer recalls. An overhaul was in order.

Storage facilities were shifted to the basement, and galleries were opened in their place. Courtyards were filled in and more galleries built within the new spaces. The majestic front entrance, which had been closed for 15 years, was restored and reopened. To broaden its reach, the MIA did away with its general admission fee in 1989. Maurer was advised not to do it. Membership will tank, he was told. And to this day, only a handful of major American art museums are free. But within a year, donations had increased significantly. Impressed by the museum’s dedication to serving a broader audience, Pillsbury and other companies increased their contributions. At last, the museum could turn its attention to constructing another major addition.

Art museums expand for several reasons, only a few of them related to their collections. Sure, museums want more space—for offices, reception halls, restaurants, and, of course, art. But, just as importantly, additional wall space tells collectors there’s room to display new works. No one wants to donate a painting only to have it descend into storage. In a sense, the MIA hopes its new wing cries, “Your painting here.”

Cozying up to collectors has never been more important. The art market is ridiculously expensive today, even by its own extravagant standards. A new generation of wealthy private individuals (“hedge-fund babies,” Halbreich says) are driving up prices, making it increasingly difficult for museums to compete in the most popular genres, such as modern art. Instead, the MIA must “collect collectors,” according to Ford Bell, co-chair of its current capital campaign. He expects the expansion to help increase awareness and funds as well as display space. In fact, only half of the money raised by the capital campaign will be used to cover construction costs; the remainder will augment the art purchase endowment.

Of course, no public building is erected without some scuttlebutt. As soon as Michael Graves was chosen to design the expansion of the museum and the adjacent CTC, questions began to circulate among the media and other observers. Graves has won the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal and the National Medal of Arts. But he may be best known locally for creating kitchen, bath, and office implements for Target stores. Target chairman Bob Ulrich headed the museum’s building committee, which recommended Graves and helped oversee the project. Was Graves’s hiring a favor to Target for its ongoing financial support; a high-profile ad, in effect, for one of its product lines?

Maurer insists otherwise. Having interviewed numerous local and regional architects, he says, the building committee concluded that Graves’s take on classical design could best mediate between the MIA’s 1915 edifice and its 1974 addition, a minimalist fortress created by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. And indeed, the new wing—featuring stark, unembellished columns, a sublimely spare rotunda, and warm honey-maple walls—evokes classical elegance without overshadowing the older buildings, or the art.

Sure, the bulbous caps on the door handles of the reception hall may remind visitors of those on Graves’s teakettles and toilet scrubbers, but then, that’s kind of the point: the addition was intended to be no less functional than Graves’s housewares, advertised by Target as “Works of art that work.” “It isn’t trendy, and it shouldn’t be,” Maurer says of the expansion. “There’s an old saying in the museum business: the more unusual your building, the worse your collection.”

Maurer allows that a conspicuous new façade can attract attention, if mostly to itself (see: the Milwaukee Art Museum). But Griswold is more interested in drawing visitors to the new installations. Many people still associate the MIA with its Chinese jade collection and colonial period rooms, which frustrated Maurer during his tenure. “[People will say] ‘I’ve been there once, I’ve seen it,’” he laments. “B.S.! You haven’t seen it.”

Nationally, the MIA has a solid reputation, capturing 10th place in an ranking of American art museums. But locals may be taking it for granted. “We don’t realize how outstanding the MIA is among the museum community in the United States,” says Michael O’Keefe, president of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which abuts the museum. Griswold hopes his outreach will change that. “In my view, there’s not a museum or a library or a school or a university or a community or faith group in this city with whom we should not be working closely,” he has said. When the expansion opens, a new era of engagement can begin. “Everything,” Griswold says, “is in place.”

The MIA’s expansion opens with “The Surreal Calder,” an exhibition of Alexander Calder’s mobiles and other artworks, running June 11 to September 10.

Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.