Over a year ago, in a sleepy, shrubby, industrial spot of Shoreview, off Hwy. 96, a former engineering firm emptied out and quietly assumed a new shape, the better to house a kind of suburban fantasyland instead.
Still drab on the outside, a new art museum curves and winds on the inside, a half-acre space dedicated to wild, cheeky, and otherworldly objects. “I wanted it to look like Oz,” says Kathie Cafesjian Baradaran, who oversees the Cafesjian Art Trust, which operates the Cafesjian Art Trust (CAT) museum. “When you are on the outside, there’s not much. But when you open it up, it’s color and light, and you’re not in Kansas anymore.”
This unlikely destination for Willy Wonka-esque whimsy is set to open, free to the public, this fall. And the “Wonka” in question is Gerard Cafesjian. The St. Paul businessman and philanthropist had an eccentric streak, loving bright and playful art, and he amassed some 3,000 pieces before he died in 2013. The plan is for themed exhibits to bubble up from the trust’s deep reservoir. Most of it consists of glass studio art—those fluid-yet-solid works that many may know from Netflix’s popular series “Blown Away.”
On a recent tour of the complex, Cafesjian Baradaran, the collector’s daughter, described her desire to open the place: “I wanted the most number of people to be able to see the collection. And I grew up in this area. I know how much I would have liked it if there had been an art museum or a library for me to go to.”
The museum will have a library, too, to feature oral histories from some of the artists on display. There will also be a sensory-friendly room for neurodiverse kids and a kitchen for events. “We want to do cocktails … evening events, date-night events, things that people will want to come to that are art-related, that are different from experiences in the area,” the museum’s executive director, Andy Schlauch, says. “We want to be able to offer tours to individuals and groups, encouraging schools to come through.”
Set to open Oct. 13, the museum will bust out some of the wares of glass artist Dale Chihuly for its first show. You may recognize the name: Think of the huge noodly sun floating in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “Sunburst” was designed by Chihuly, a longtime friend of Cafesjian, who collected about 45 of his works. “We’ll be featuring a lot of their correspondence [in the debut exhibit]—some of the napkins and plates that [Chihuly] would doodle on, having dinner with [Cafesjian],” says Schlauch, who previously served as executive director of the Chihuly Collection in Florida.
Among the permanent Chihuly pieces on display, one resembles a glass garden embedded in the ceiling. It should look familiar to any who have glanced up while walking through the lobby of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas and seen the artist’s famous, glowing sprawl of glass blooms—although Cafesjian Baradaran knows it from the dining room of her parents’ home in Florida. “It was, like, two tons’ worth of glass art hanging above us as we ate,” she says.
The Cafesjian collection spans media beyond glass, including lithographs, non-glass sculptures, and 19th-century paintings. The smallest and lightest item is a ceramic whistle from the Tang Dynasty. The biggest and heaviest formerly graced a metro station in Prague: a 9 1/2-foot work called “Kontakty (Contacts)” by contemporary artists Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová, known for cryptic, imposing, colorful glass objects.
To open later, the museum’s second exhibit will show “a little bit of everything,” to convey the scope of the collection, Schlauch says. Cafesjian gravitated toward light, color, and humor, Cafesjian Baradaran notes, and he picked up some big names in modern and contemporary art, like Abstract Expressionist Arshile Gorky and Fauvist boundary-pusher Georges Braque. So far, exhibition ideas mix and match. A few examples: women in glass art; landscape paintings; a combo of Victor Vasarely, known for painting optical illusions, and John Kuhn, known for incorporating illusion into his glass sculptures. “I’m sure some people might get vertigo with all of that,” Schlauch says.
The public has had access to Cafesjian’s aesthetic tastes before. In 2009, he opened the Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. That brought the collector back to his roots; the Brooklyn native, born to Armenian immigrants in 1925, transplanted to St. Paul in 1960, where he worked as an executive at West Publishing Company before its mid-’90s sale landed him a fortune. Cafesjian became known locally as the man who paid more than $1 million to save the old, candy-colored, slightly nightmarish State Fair carousel, which now spins in St. Paul’s Como Park.
Regarding the Armenian arts center, “the geopolitical situation may or may not” allow for collaboration between museums, Cafesjian Baradaran says. But a piece of Cafesjian’s past will come through in the Shoreview space’s no-charge entry. “He grew up during the Depression in Brooklyn, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art was free,” Cafesjian Baradaran explains. “He was surrounded by beautiful things, and he wanted to live that way.”