Russian Rebirth

Judi Dutcher on life after E85 and her new artistic adventure

Judi Dutcher isn’t bitter. She knows you can’t survive a major mistake in politics, as she did last year, bobbling a question on E85 (shorthand for ethanol) during her campaign as Mike Hatch’s gubernatorial running mate. The former state auditor is ready to move on; she recently agreed to head the Museum of Russian Art, where she’s still answering tough questions, like how did the largest collection of Russian art outside the motherland end up in a former church in Minneapolis?

What brought you to the museum? Russian ancestry?

I’m not Russian. A recruiter found me. People who know me well are aware of my interest in art—I do some painting, make jewelry—and it meshed with what the museum was looking for in terms of governance and especially fundraising, which I have a great deal of experience in [as past president of the Minnesota Community Foundation, as well as a political candidate].

Any parallels between politics and art?

People have said, “Judi Dutcher doesn’t have a fine-arts background, how can she run a museum?” But as in politics, it’s all about getting your message across. The message here has to be trying to get people in the door. Also, we often work with the Russian government and the U.S. State Department to secure artworks. So this job is learning how to navigate the system. I may have to drink a little vodka, da!

Isn’t Soviet art inherently political, as well?

We have mostly art from the 19th and 20th centuries, so politics played a part in creating much of this: The artists were supported by the Soviet government, given free education and cheap art supplies, so the subject matter was influenced by the Communist government.

Any common misconceptions of Russian art?

We grew up with that Cold War mentality of concern and suspicion about the Soviets, and then you see this art and realize they’re a lot like us. Their lives depended on agriculture. You see people shoveling snow and ice skating. I hope the museum causes people to abandon the notion of Russian art as dark or drab.

Russian art is hot now; how far ahead of the curve was museum founder Ray Johnson when he was collecting in the 1980s?

At the time, few people knew what the fine-art scene was like in the Soviet Union. Ray Johnson had someone there rank the best Russian artists and sent people over to buy their work. There’s no collection like this in the United States.

Who’s tougher: political opponents or art critics?

The way the last campaign ended, I can’t imagine anything tougher than people questioning your intelligence. At least with art, people can form their own opinions.

Are you done with politics?

I don’t see myself running for office again. But the last thing I want my legacy to be is people saying, “I don’t want to run for political office because I don’t want to expose myself to that kind of criticism.” Don’t let what happened to me dissuade you.

When will the museum finally display Russian nesting dolls?

We already have them—they’re in the gift shop. MM