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The question wasn't rocket science, but it momentarily stumped a Minneapolis Institute of Arts tour guide.
"How is neon made?" a visitor asked.
A couple of years ago, the guide might have shrugged and changed the subject. Now, out came an iPad.
"We're art historians. We don't know about neon," said Kaywin Feldman, the museum's director, who overheard that recent exchange. "But with the iPad we could answer that and more. People can watch videos of artists at work or curators talking about art or can zoom in and look at details of something they couldn't otherwise see."
The iPads in the galleries are just one of myriad new things at the MIA, a traditional museum that's remaking itself on the cusp of the centennial it will celebrate in 2015. Like museums across the country, it is eager to appeal to young and old, arty types and the casually curious, neighbors and tourists from distant climes. Surveys find visitors clamoring for museum experiences that are relevant to them, whatever that means.
"We all know we're relevant," Feldman said. "I mean, we have 85,000 objects made by and for humans. Our job is to communicate how and why they're relevant to a 21st century visitor."
Computer stations in nooks throughout the building offer information at the touch of a keyboard. But there have been more radical changes since Feldman was hired in 2008.
Art labels are more casual, parties are more fun (think Venetian masks, French films, cancan dancers), and one summer day 3,000 people biked through the museum's entrance concourse for a "Tour de Force" celebration with bike-themed music, films and fashions. Even lectures have been repackaged -- a recent talk about still-life paintings was paired with a food-styling demo.
More fundamentally, contemporary art has muscled into traditional galleries, and media that were once separated have been mixed. In 2010 a huge painting by Kehinde Wiley of two contemporary black guys hung for months among 17th century religious paintings in the Baroque gallery, and a 1997 neo-colonial fabric sculpture by Yinka Shonibare was displayed in an 18th century French salon.
Those pieces -- part of an "Art ReMix" program designed to spark new perspectives on art history -- have now migrated to other galleries. But visitors will still find Minnesota artist JoAnn Verburg's panoramic photos of misty Italian groves among the Chinese porcelain, and a modernist abstraction by painter David Reed with the Baroque paintings.
"One thing that distinguishes us from our peers around the country is our willingness to experiment," Feldman said. "If it doesn't work, we can put things back. There are no broken bones here. It's safe."
A new team
Change was badly needed when Feldman arrived four years ago. Her appointment followed five years of turmoil during which the museum had three directors, even as it completed a $50 million addition and raised $50 million more for its endowment.
She found a demoralized staff with vacancies in critical posts. Within two months, she reorganized the administration and set about hiring curators in African, Chinese and contemporary art, sculpture, photography and prints and drawings.
Feldman also began tweaking the exhibition program, adding a show of contemporary photography and video art from India that once would have seemed better suited for Walker Art Center, the Twin Cities' modernist enclave. To Feldman, however, the show offered a neat link to the institute's collection of traditional Indian art.
Like many older art museums, the institute had an ambiguous relationship with late 20th century art, essentially conceding that turf to the Walker. As a result, some institute collections -- particularly painting and sculpture -- were oddly truncated at about 1945, while others -- notably photography and American Indian art -- continued into the present. But as the Walker increasingly focused on performance, film and experimental art, there was an obvious opening for the institute to rethink its programs.
CAMP is in session
"We've spent the past three years testing ideas," said Elizabeth Armstrong, the museum's assistant director for exhibitions. Armstrong, who doubles as the museum's curator of contemporary art, pioneered the "ReMix" of contemporary and traditional objects. Her newest venture is something she calls CAMP -- the Center for Alternative Museum Practice.
"CAMP is an innovation lab," said Armstrong, a former Walker curator who worked for 12 years in California before joining the institute in 2008. "It's not just about contemporary art, it's about alternative ways to do museums, about encouraging all of us to work more collaboratively and get outside our curatorial silos."
Everyone and anyone on the museum's staff, from guards to installation crew to curators, can toss out ideas at round-table discussions that Armstrong stages to spur new ideas. One result was a hallway exhibit of sculpted heads borrowed from every department and fitted with saucy labels.
Another was the Pop Up Park, an oasis of artificial greenery and tropical umbrellas that sprouted in the lobby this winter. A family magnet, it helped the MIA draw more than 40,000 people in January, up from 36,000 a year earlier.
"Innovation is in the air," Armstrong said. "We're trying to make it part of our DNA here -- and it's fun."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431