Lyndel King jokingly calls herself the “grandmother” of the Twin Cities art scene.
No joke: After 40 years as director of the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, King announced Tuesday she’s stepping down — but not until June 2020, so she can raise funds to ensure her successor has “a little extra money, which I never had, to start off.”
King was a true pioneer. There were few women leading museums when she became the Weisman’s director in 1981, three years after joining its staff.
More crucially, the Weisman simply didn’t exist before King. For nearly 60 years the museum’s collection was housed in rooms on the fourth floor of the university’s Northrop auditorium.
King gave renowned architect Frank Gehry his first major commission, and she raised $18 million to build the striking stainless-steel-and-brick home on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus that became an immediate Twin Cities landmark when it opened in 1993.
“From the very beginning, Lyndel promoted the need for a world-class university to have a world-class art museum on its campus,” Gehry said in a statement Tuesday. “She understood that the arts were a critical part of students’ education, and she dedicated herself to making this dream into a reality.
“I can tell you that the Weisman Art Museum exists because of her indomitable spirit, her intelligence, and her perseverance.”
Named for Minneapolis-born, Los Angeles-based collector Frederick Weisman — who donated $3.3 million for construction, plus $1 million worth of art — the museum put Gehry on the map, leading to bigger projects such as the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in Spain. (The Weisman is sometimes called “Baby Bilbao.”)
In 2010-11, King and Gehry worked together again on a $14 million expansion that added new skylights and floors, Mississippi River views and more space for the museum’s collection, including masterpieces by Georgia O’Keeffe and a ceramics gallery inspired by her friend, master Minnesota potter Warren MacKenzie.
“To get to work with a real genius, not once but twice, is an opportunity not many people have in their lives,” King said of Gehry. “A huge gift to me. So much fun, and we had a great relationship and we still do.”
One of the first women elected to the Association of Art Museum Directors, King has overseen more than 200 exhibitions, including the recent “Prince From Minneapolis,” and acquired more than 16,000 works of art, nearly tripling the museum’s collection.
The search for a new director will commence next year, as King works on a capital campaign to endow her post in perpetuity.
“Lyndel’s vast knowledge and eloquent charm combined with her fierce devotion to art, its creation and creators, make her the engine that drives the Weisman,” said Robin Torgerson and Phil Rosenbloom, chairs of the museum’s advisory board.
King said she views her main accomplishment as less about the building and money, and more about the longer-term impact of the facilities.
“The museum is now a vital part of the teaching of the university,” said King, who recently won a fellowship with the American Academy in Rome to research a book about the development of university museums.
“We are preparing the art patrons we have in this community. That’s what makes me the most proud.”