Dr. Katherine Crawford Luber began her new role at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) in January—just in time for the whole world to close. But not before new exhibition When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration left an impact, especially Safe Passage, Ai Weiwei’s installation that covered Mia’s exterior columns in thousands of discarded lifejackets worn by refugees.
As the Texas native directed her staff of 250 to work from home while translating the collection online (where you can zoom in on gorgeous details), her challenge was to understand a culture shuttered by a global pandemic and to find new ways for art to provide solace, peace, and inspiration to the community.
We chatted with Luber (who goes by “Katie”) from our respective social distancing zones to find out where she’s coming from, and where the museum is headed next.
Coming from the San Antonio Museum of Art, what drew you to Mia, and to Minneapolis?
The collection, the collection, the collection. Also, the incredible reputation of Mia as a leader in thinking about the way museums interact with their community.
What is one of your first childhood memories of feeling connected to art?
There were many of them. My mother loved art—she took me to the museum all the time. One of my first memories was being pushed in the stroller and going under The Crab by Alexander Calder. It was a sunny day, and with the blue sky and the red ribs of the crab, it felt enveloping and magical. I can still conjure that feeling.
Have you noticed differences between the two communities’ art scenes?
I’m really struck by how similar the country is. I-35 connects Minneapolis and San Antonio—it’s an artery of the United States. People in both Texas and Minnesota share a remarkable friendliness, openness, honesty, and connection to one another. As different as they might be, they’re more alike.
What has Mia done to react to the spread of the novel coronavirus?
Our priority at the museum is the health and safety of our staff, our visitors, and our community. For me, as an individual and as a leader, it’s so rapidly evolving. I’ve never seen so much new information, and we’ve had to deal with it and make decisions with very little time. I won’t lie, it’s been very sobering and challenging. My commitment to the staff here is deep. We’ve committed to having everyone work at home.
We’ve also ramped up our digital engagement. The dedication of the staff here—they haven’t missed a beat. If you haven’t been on our website or seen our recent Instagram posts, it’s really moving. We know humans are social beings. We know people are at home alone, lonely, afraid, and anxious. We like to think we’re still able to reach them through digital means to provide some solace and comfort in these very challenging moments.
We closed on Friday [March 13] and, on the following Monday, we rolled out a new tool on our website that allows [you] to be able to see digital images in high-res. You can zoom in and look at something. You can look at our library and see multiple videos about the art. I’m so proud of my team for being able to respond, react, and act. They are the best.
How will the space of Mia evolve in the future, to accommodate changes in society?
I’m really interested in the way museums interpret their collections. I could imagine a world in which Mia thinks about accessibility of collections in a much broader way, really uniting those digital assets with our extraordinary collections to make sure anyone can come to Mia online or in-person, so they can have an experience with art that would be useful or valuable to their learned experience. It doesn’t have to be something that [requires] a certain knowledge for you to be able to access it and enjoy it. We want to make ourselves much more open to all kinds of visitors.
You’ve talked about property rights and human rights being at the center of modern art. Do you see those two as being in competition?
Not art so much as I see the museum as a place where we serve art and we serve people. I’m a very firm believer in human rights and the right of all people to dignity, to expression. I think the museum can be a place for those kinds of rights to be explored and fulfilled. At the same time, art itself is a sort of property. Can we really, at Mia, say we own a work of art? Can we keep it in perpetuity, for the future of others to enjoy and learn from? Will we always be looking at our collections as being the only thing important to us? No. The interactions between our audiences and our collections are the core things that set us apart from any other kind of institution in the world.
Are people reframing art collections in response to criticism of colonialism? How do you solve for that?
Yes, absolutely. The reason museums are evolving is that, if we don’t serve our public and our people, our art will become less and less important. I really see the intersection of those two things being at the crux of the museum today. Accessibility, and also making sure we’re interpreting collections in a way that acknowledges that historical complexity: the fact that so many museums were founded on the idea that the individual is defined by the enlightenment, and that many cultures don’t share that same idea.
Being so close to MCAD, how do you plan to collaborate with up-and-coming artists and visual thinkers?
You may know that Mia started a contemporary art department quite recently. With MCAD being our neighbor, one of my most exciting meetings so far has been with the new president, Sanjit Sethi. We’re exploring ways we can collaborate and become a locus for how artists can explore work that has a historical significance to them, and how we can help to inform their practices and learn from them as well. I love collaboration and I’m excited about what the future holds with our neighbors at MCAD.
How will art help us process what’s happening in modern times, especially with the coronavirus, the stock market crash, and the election?
I hope the museum can be a place of solace for all our visitors. I hope it can be a place of inspiration. And, maybe, a place of peace. And last, a place where people can really talk about ideas, not just positions.
What’s the interplay between a museum like Mia and pop culture and commerce, like streaming and video games, which people experience day-to-day?
I think that pop art infuses our culture, and if we’re not thinking about it, we’re missing out on something really large. It is a way that people learn to look at things. But I think our brains are wired to [remember] images and works of art that move us, regardless of in what context we see them. You’re getting away from my core competencies, but yes, I stream on Netflix, too.
What can we expect from local artists at Mia?
This summer, we’re doing a program called Foot in the Door, God willing and coronavirus willing. We invite artists from all over the state to enter and gain a chance to display their works of art at the museum. I’m looking forward to that. We expect more than 5,000 artists to participate.
Certainly, a lot of fascinating art will come out of this era.
Good artists respond to the time we’re living in and give us a chance to understand what’s happening with current events. I’m really hopeful about that. I hope it turns into something really great for our community and for artists. I’m hoping that coronavirus lets us have that.
What do you look forward to this summer?
I have a brother who’s an avid fisherman. He’s been talking about going fishing in the Boundary Waters. I really want to do that. I’ve heard so much about the North Shore of Lake Superior. I can’t wait to go and experience that. You maybe know that I’ve become more in touch with my Norwegian ancestry. I really want to go to Spring Grove and see some of the places where my family group first started here. I’ve heard the summer in Minnesota is glorious. I can’t wait to experience it.
I’ve been to Eat Street a couple of times. I can’t wait for it to open up. I love performing arts and I can’t wait for theaters to reopen. My heart goes out to the performers and organizations. It’s so hard to be closed.
How can people support art, right now and as things improve?
Become a member of your local museum. Go to the theater. If you live in St. Paul, go to the Ordway. If you live in Minneapolis, go to the orchestra. Go and participate. That’s the biggest message you can send, that you care about the arts in Minnesota. It’s true if you’re in Duluth, or if you’re by the North Dakota border—every community has an arts organization that needs your support.
Visit the Mia virtually, and check for updates at collections.artsmia.org