Welcome to the New, Old Minnesota Museum of American Art

The St. Paul museum has a new look and new exhibits

A painting of two fishermen hauling in fish in nets.
Patrick DesJarlait’s Red Lake Fishermen (1946) is among the works featured in the M flagship exhibition. All art courtesy Minnesota Museum of American Art.

After a year-long renovation, the Minnesota Museum of American Art—but you can just call it “the M”—celebrates the past, present, and future for its re-opening. Located within the landmark Pioneer and Endicott buildings at the edge of St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood, the spiffed-up museum’s structure shows off more of its own storied past, and has more room to display its sizable permanent collection.

Featuring the latest contemporary acquisitions as well as pieces that go back to the museum’s beginnings 100 years ago, the “100 Years and Counting” exhibit opens December 2 as part of the first of two re-opening phases that total $23 million in construction work. “It’s going to be new and old and all media thrown together in that space, to make some interesting juxtapositions and comparisons,” the M trustee Hawona Sullivan Janzen says, “and to allow us to see that just because something is 100 years old, doesn’t mean that its stories are not relevant to who we are or where we are going.”

The M was once three buildings: the Pioneer building, which formerly housed the Pioneer Press newspaper, and two Endicott buildings connected by a glass-covered arcade. The Endicott buildings were designed by James Knox Taylor and Cass Gilbert. The latter also designed Minnesota’s State Capitol, the Woolworth Building in New York City (the world’s tallest building in 1913), and the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.

“These buildings were the center of commerce in St. Paul for almost a century,” says the M executive director Kristin Makholm. Built in 1889 and 1890, respectively, the Pioneer and the Endicott buildings were eventually joined together, and aspects of the original designs were covered up. The renovation of the M has restored some of those original features.

“One thing that’s exciting about being in a historic building is all of the accidents,” Sullivan Janzen says.

A portrait of Clara Mairs (1923) by Frances Cranmer Greenman in the Minnesota Museum of American Art's new spaces.
See portrait of Clara Mairs (1923) by Frances Cranmer Greenman in the Minnesota Museum of American Art’s new space

Layers of history peek through the floors and walls, evoking a certain roughness. As a building on the National Register of Historic Places, the M must retain the building’s historic character, inside and out, to be eligible for preservation tax credits. As a result, there are archways that haven’t been seen in a century and penny tiles on the floor from an earlier age. An alleyway that once separated the buildings now serves as a hallway.

But there are also new, shiny objects. Part of the vision of the future for the M is to connect with passersby, giving them a hint of the treasures inside. From a connected skyway entrance, you’ll be able to see into the new “sculpture court” at the M. The skyway itself has glass walls, and an additional bridge lets people walk out to better view the sculptures below. The first piece on display in the court, “Softly…before the Supreme Court,” is a newly commissioned installation honoring Cass Gilbert’s legacy, by New York-based fiber artist Sheila Pepe.

The sculpture court helps make the old space feel fresh. “It hasn’t looked like that ever,” Makholm says, “and the height of it hasn’t been experienced in over a century. We’re creating a completely new urban environment within this block of buildings in downtown St. Paul.”

Also visible from outside the museum, a window gallery faces out onto Robert Street. Makholm got the idea when visiting the Racine Art Museum in southeastern Wisconsin.

“It was just a gallery that you could only see from outside,” she recalls. “I really liked that because anybody could experience it and could enjoy it at any time.” Duluth-based multimedia artist David Bowen will inaugurate the space by channeling the movement of waves washing onto shorelines around the world through thousands of LED lights.

“Our plan is to be maximally accessible,” Makholm says. She describes the building’s big glass windows, looking onto the street as well as upstairs, as part of its “porous exterior,” so anyone can “feel welcome and look in and see who we are, but also how we connect to the community around us.”

Stephen Rolfe Powell's Apricot Inhalation Jones (1997) is also part of the flagship exhibition.
Stephen Rolfe Powell’s Apricot Inhalation Jones (1997) is also part of the flagship exhibition

You’ll find those community connections in a huge mural on the outside of the parking garage at the M, created by Hmong Australian artist Vanghoua Anthony Vue and a team of local Hmong painters, as well as in an installation by Laura Brown along the skyway that leads out of the museum.

“This is a very strong statement that says we want you to come and experience the space,” Sullivan Janzen says. “We want you to come in. We want you to believe that this is your space—your American space.”

Having more space also means the M can expand its educational programming, both inside the museum and in classrooms around St. Paul. This December, visitors can try their hand at creating art themselves in the Wide Open Studio with the help of visiting artists. The Center for Creativity will include an artist-in-residence classroom, where artists will create and give talks.

In 2019, the museum will unveil phase two. This will make space for one-off exhibitions in addition to a rotating display from the permanent collection at the M. “There has been a great history of incredible American art that can speak just as strongly to this generation as it spoke to the generation in which it is was created,” Sullivan Janzen says. “We want to find a way to let people know that new stories can be told and narratives can be found between older and newer art, and you can find connections between them.”

The M Grand Opening, with live performances, arts activities, and a ribbon cutting, is Sunday, December 2, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Free, at 350 Robert St. N., St. Paul. A ticketed preview party takes place Saturday, December 1, 6:30 p.m.-10 p.m. mmaa.org