In a nondescript warehouse in a nondescript office park south of St. Paul, Christmas comes nearly every day. “What’s this?” Kristin Makholm asks, opening a dusty box. “Oh! It’s gorgeous,” she says of the textile inside, then places it beside the racks of paintings tucked behind sculptures butting up against two huge headless bodies—statues designed for the Mayo Clinic.
When Makholm took over as director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, in 2009, this was all that was left of the only art museum in St. Paul: several thousand gems with no place to shine. The museum, which began as an art school in the early 20th century, had merged and morphed over the decades, finally closing two years ago under financial duress. No one had seen much of the collection in years.
About two-thirds of it—Chinese jade, a Degas pastel—was sold off in the 1990s to focus on American art. What remains is an eye-pleasing mélange, from a painting by Thomas Hart Benton to a wood collage by George Morrison to more than 300 sculptures and drawings by Paul Manship, the St. Paul native whose Prometheus watches over the skating rink at Rockefeller Center.
Makholm, who curated collections in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design before arriving in St. Paul, is more spontaneous and spunky than most museum directors. “My impulse is always to get objects off the pedestal and make them come alive,” she says. This summer, she organized a show of MMAA works at the Minnesota State Fair before sending the finest pieces on the road. They will travel to museums across the country next year. “I always thought there was a great deal of potential here,” she says, surveying the warehouse. Others apparently agree: the museum is scouting gallery spaces in St. Paul and expects to rally enough donors to reopen in 2015.
“We found the heads!” an assistant shouts. Makholm races over to see the plaster pates for the Mayo Clinic statues. Bemused, she says, “There’s nothing here that I can hide. This is the situation. We need friends to take ownership of this collection.”
5 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT KRISTEN
1. Growing up in Milwaukee, she played the glockenspiel in the high-school marching band.
2. She worked as a concierge at the Hyatt Regency in Minneapolis, where she met James Taylor.
3. She’s an alto in Philip Brunelle’s choir at Plymouth Congregational Church.
4. Her doctorate thesis was on Hannah Höch, a Dada artist who pioneered photomontage.
5. She’s no art hound. “Many curators are just frustrated collectors. I’m in this for the community.”