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Continued: Art's Minnesota twins

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 1, 2012 - 5:34 PM

As directors of the Twin Cities' leading art museums, Kaywin Feldman at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Olga Viso at Walker Art Center have a lot in common.

Both arrived in the Twin Cities in January 2008, a couple of years after their museums had been dramatically expanded but on the cusp of a recession that forced them to trim budgets and staff. Their friendship has been nurtured over at-home dinners, joint outings by their boards of directors, travel to art fairs and museum conferences, and art exchanges.

They recently talked with the Star Tribune about their work. Excerpts from that conversation:

Challenges

Q What are some of the main challenges facing museums today?

Feldman: One is generational, which isn't necessarily new because museums have always served everybody from beginning to end. What interests a millennial may not be the same thing as what appeals to our traditional visitors. Traditionally more of our funding comes from an older audience. Balancing the need to develop new audiences while also engaging our traditional audience offers a challenge. I don't mean that in a negative sense, but it does impact financial decisions and where you put your resources.

Q Can you give an example of a choice?

Feldman: One area we struggle with is lectures. We offer a lot of great speakers throughout the year, often doing lectures related to the collection, and I notice an older and older audience coming to those lectures. So we're thinking about how to engage a younger generation in content delivery. We recently tried a pecha kucha [Japanese for "chit chat"], where our curators showed 20 images in 20 seconds. It was a way to deliver content but keep it very short and lively. We also followed a lecture on still-life paintings with a demonstration by a food stylist.

Viso: We just redid our website to make it more of an online journal about contemporary art and culture that contextualizes what we do locally, nationally and internationally.

Moving our resources to invest in and build new areas is a challenge. Our Open Field is a summer program partnering with individual artists, small groups and civic organizations -- yoga groups, yarn-bombers, bull-whippers. When you create programs with the community, it goes against that conventional model of explaining or lecturing.

We did a program in performing arts called "Speakeasy" which we're trying to apply now to the museum because it's been so successful. It's not the authority figure conveying information; it's a very engaged dialogue. After a dance, music or theatrical performance, someone from the community and a tour guide will sit down with a glass of wine in the balcony above the theater and just talk with the audience about what they saw. This is how museums are really responding to technology and social networking. It's not just developing mobile technology and apps. That's one dimension. Another is getting people to help in creating content and shaping their experiences at our institutions -- customizing those experiences. That's very exciting.

Feldman: I don't mean to dwell on the lecture thing, but it really worries me, in part because I'm one of those people who really loves a lecture. I think we're both experimenting with new ways to deliver content to people. We're still content-generators; that's the heart of what we do. But the way people receive it and participate has changed.

Viso: Our lectures are available on the Walker channel and online, and people really go to them, so this is not to say that traditional forms are not relevant.

Q This must have economic implications too because you have to provide new technology. You both have wi-fi but what are other implications?

Viso: We had to hire a new web editor to manage that content. So, yeah, it's making choices, letting things go and shifting resources. That's a challenge.

Feldman: Technology is so expensive and we don't necessarily want to be at the absolute invention stage. We want something that is a little tried and true and then find the best way to take advantage of it. We're planning what a new web site will be.

Internationalism

Q Both your institutions do international loans, exhibitions and curatorial exchanges, yet you're regional museums in the middle of the country. How do you manage that?

Feldman: We have our very first curator of Chinese art who is Chinese, so we're thinking a lot about China right now. [Curator Liu] Yang wants to do some new partnerships with China, not just with scholars but also exchanges with conservators and curators. We're thinking of opportunities to send some of our collection to China.

Q Would you send Chinese objects or, say, some of your Impressionist paintings?

Feldman: Our initial discussions have been about the Chinese collection in part because the scholars and museum officials we've been bringing over have been so impressed by the Chinese collection and in some cases not aware of how significant it is.

Q What's your timetable?

Feldman: With our "First Emperor" exhibition in the fall we're going to have a symposium and will bring scholars from all over Europe and China. That will be our first real convening to talk about what those partnerships might be.

Viso: Walker has always had a strong commitment, especially since the 1990s, to expanding its global reach through programming and its collection. There was a large effort to establish a network of advisors to shape how the Walker would host curators and build networks in various parts of the world. That, I think, really transformed the institution. That global focus is very much a strongly held value among the curatorial staff. We have a lot of new curatorial staff, particularly Clara Kim [named senior curator of visual arts last August], who is Korean.

[Chief curator] Darsie Alexander is organizing a major exhibition for 2014-15 that will look at early Pop art as a real global phenomenon in China, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. It's looking at the canonical artists, but also understanding that the Pop movement really was an international one. She got a Warhol Foundation grant for curatorial research to create an advisory committee around that exhibition. Film and performance will participate too. As an institution we've doubled our facility and have really put a lot of attention into international connections. We hold those very dear, but we're also shifting our focus to how we contribute to the vitality of this community.

Being in the Midwest

Q Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to be located in the middle of the country?

Viso: I think it's a huge advantage working in contemporary art. When you're working with artists you often get tougher, more experimental work; it's more raw. When they're presenting in New York they edit themselves more. I think we all are much more adventurous. That's true in performance and exhibitions. Artists take more risks here because they can. They might try things out here before they take them elsewhere. So for us it's an advantage, though it might appear at first as a disadvantage.

Q And why do they edit more in New York than here?

Viso: I think because they feel there's more at stake. Also, and this is a phrase from Kathy [Halbreich, her predecessor], the Walker is a safe place for unsafe ideas. Our staff works very hard to support artists in the making of work and taking risks. So there's a lot of support that's technical but also intellectual and conceptual. We do a lot of residencies and support artists who are testing out new ideas. Our audiences also like to participate in the critique and to get access to the making. Sometimes they're part of the workshop.

Q What about the MIA?

Feldman: We're always frustrated to hear people say, "I never knew you had this collection here in the Midwest." We hate to be overlooked, the well-kept secret. In our current strategic plan, our goal was to promote the wonderful collection we have. We were proud to be cited by Apollo [magazine] among their top two museum acquisitions for the year. It's a definite focus to get the word out.

Acquisition strategies

Q There are certain world-class things in the Institute's collection that are essential loans for major exhibitions, especially Poussin's "Death of Germanicus," Rembrandt's "Lucretia," and Goya's "Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta." How do they fit into the big picture?

Feldman: That goes back to the vision of our founders. [Trustee] Bruce Dayton has always said we want to have the key work of art where if any museum organizes an exhibition by that artist, they have to call us to get that work. That has been a collecting principle at the MIA."

Q Can you keep acquiring at that pitch?

Feldman: Pitch yes, quantity no. When I arrived we were acquiring an average of 2,500 works of art a year. We're down now to about 300 and 400, so we've vastly reduced the quantity, but we're acquiring works at a much higher quality level, which the trustees are very supportive of.

Q What about the Walker?

Viso: Because we're buying young [artists], we don't have the same issues, though there are gaps in the collection and we hope for gifts from donors to bridge the gaps. We acquire about 60 to 80 works a year, though this past year was an exception with the Merce Cunningham archive, which numbered over 1,000 objects. We raised money to make that happen in addition to our acquisition fund. We're very focused on supporting artists early, and I would say that we were able to acquire the Cunningham collection because we supported his work in 1963 and throughout his career. But collecting is challenging because of prices in the contemporary market.

Q Is contemporary art still the most expensive field?

Feldman: That's what they say. Old Masters are a bargain by comparison.

Competition

Q What about the competition between your institutions? Since you arrived, Kaywin, the institute has gone very much into contemporary art, which was a very spotty field at the MIA during the previous 50 years. Does that set up a conflict between your museums?

Feldman: Before we acquire something we always contact the Walker to be sure they don't have anything comparable because this community doesn't need multiple versions of the same thing. We're trying to complement each other's collections. Contemporary art is part of the continuity of our collection, so before we acquire we spend a lot of time talking about the relevance of the work to our collection, how it continues or expands a dialogue we already have in the galleries.

Viso: I think that when you're collecting in the context of a traditional institution you collect differently. You may have the same artists but you collect a different body of work.

Feldman: We're also not experimental or buying very young artists. We don't see that as part of our mission.

Q What is the Walker's collecting direction now?

Viso: Having made such a strong commitment to the Merce Cunningham archive, we're continuing to build on that. We recently bought an installation by Meredith Monk, another artist from the Cunningham arena, and drawings by Trisha Brown. So we're starting to make acquisitions that are more interdisciplinary. It's part of our five-year plan and includes filmmakers as well. It's part of expanding the global connection to international artists. Our exhibitions also focus and shape where we're going. We have support of a Mellon Foundation grant to understand what it means to have textiles to document, store and archive. That's a challenge.

Money

Q Your endowments appear healthier now after the 2008 crash, but how is your funding these days -- stable, anxious?

Feldman: Stable is a good word.

Viso: But we're not showing immediate signs of growth. We're experiencing pressure on all our revenue streams, so how you bridge that is an issue. Individual donors make a difference. Being able to maintain stability as we build other areas like technology and audiences is challenging when you have budgets that are smaller than they were 10 years ago. You have to make some decisions. As a leader, my biggest challenge is how to push in times when you're financially challenged.

Feldman: I'm not sure thinking about growth in philanthropy is realistic. So we're thinking a lot more about how to become more self-sufficient and to earn more of our money. Things like the global internet provide opportunities to do that.

Q How would you make money out of the internet as an art museum?

Feldman: Make potholders? (laughs) It can range from the obvious, like marketing the shop, to an app that can cost 99 cents and you just sell a million of them. Apps in themselves are not a way to make money, but they provide the model of the internet. You can charge a little and find many more people participating.

Q If you can figure out how to do that, we can save the newspaper also.

Viso: An interesting model is the Indianapolis Museum. When Max Anderson was director there, they took their media lab and basically sold their design services to other nonprofits. They have a very strong new-media team and are selling its expertise at a reduced rate. It's cheaper for the field than hiring an independent web developer/designer.

Feldman: They also recently announced that they rented curatorial expertise to a hotel and local corporations. And charged for their curator to come in and advise and consult.

Q And your curators have so much idle time, I'm sure they would not have a problem doing that and would be thrilled.

Viso: I do think it pushes the bounds of what's appropriate.

Feldman: I think they both do, but I also think that's the world we live in. Becoming more self-sustainable is inevitable.

Park plans

Q Both of your institutions are adjacent to parkland. What are your plans for that land?

Viso: The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden land is owned by the Minneapolis park system and we're trying, with them, to raise $8.5 million to renovate the garden for its 25th anniversary in 2015. Open Field has been a series of experiments to help us understand what we want to do with that land [which the Walker owns west of its building]. We're about to put a major landmark on it, a sculpture by Jim Hodges which presages some of the plans. We are working with a cross-disciplinary design team including artists, architects and landscape architects, on concepts that build on the spirit of Open Field. That is different from earlier plans that were more densely landscaped. Ideally they [the garden renovation and field plan] would happen in tandem for our 75th anniversary in 2015. I'm not going to promise anything, but it is something to aspire to.

Feldman: The only park we have now is the Pop Up Park, a faux-park in our lobby. The Washburn Fair Oaks Park is adjacent to the museum but the institute is not directly involved with it.

Legacy Amendment

Q In November 2008 Minnesota amended the state's constitution with a "legacy amendment" which generates a lot of money for the arts. What has been the amendment's impact, if any, on your state funding?

Feldman: We don't benefit directly from it, but we benefit from the promotion of art across the state, so it's helpful in that.

Viso: What we get is a contribution which did increase. It almost doubled from about $300,000 to $600,000. It's not a large amount relative to our [$18.7 million annual] budget but it is certainly very helpful. Every dollar matters in this economy, so I think it has been essential in allowing us to move forward when it's difficult to raise money. That being said, there are other goals for expanding the grants and programs in the community. I think we all benefit from this Northern Spark Festival, which has State Arts Board funding. We're involved with that, the MIA participates, as do all the institutions. It's a great thing for the state that's happening due to the state's support.

Q You see it as a benefit to everybody?

Viso: Absolutely. For those of us who work in the arts to get that boost of confidence was important. Around the country all our colleagues at conferences ask "How did you put this together? How did you get all the institutions to work together?"

Trusty trustees

Q Minneapolis has a national reputation for corporate and civic commitment to the arts, much of it fostered by the homegrown CEOs of companies like Dayton's, General Mills and the like. Now many once-local companies -- Honeywell, Norwest bank, Pillsbury, for example -- are gone or are subsidiaries of companies headquartered elsewhere. How have those changes affected your museums?

Feldman: Actually, we still have a lot of continuity. Our life trustees include John Andrus, who is 102. He is older than the MIA [which opened in 1915]. And Clinton Morrison and Bruce Dayton [who has been on the board since 1946]. I very much feel the continuity of the institution. Sometimes I look back at board minutes from moments in the 1950s when we were bringing in a Matisse, a Soutine or a Picasso at the same meeting. Some of the people who gave us those paintings are still on the board.

Q What are you doing to nurture their successors?

Feldman: Good question. We also have Eric Dayton [Bruce's grandson] at 30, so we have this spectrum. Obviously we're all thinking of that original generation, but corporations are bringing new leadership to town. We added Hubert Joy, the president and CEO of Carlson Companies, to our board and it's wonderful to add that European perspective as well as that global business perspective.

Viso: Likewise we have a new board member, Mauro Porcini, head of global design at 3M, who brings a real design focus in developing product lines. He's 41, very young and energetic. So there's a new generation of people who may not be from the Twin Cities but carry the legacy of these longstanding companies.

Right after I came here, I remember [Walker board members] Phil von Blon and John Cowles and others of that generation saying to me that we want so much for you and your husband Cameron to have here what we created with [former Walker director] Martin and Mickey Friedman -- a group of very passionate, civic-minded people who love culture and art and who could really make something happen and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it. There is a generation of trustees who have emerged who are in their 40s and 50s who are kind of galvanizing around the institution. Some have a long history with the institution like the younger Daytons or Crosbys, or the Pohlad family. The prior generation started that and now, I think, there is a return to that communal spirit. They're continuing that legacy into the future for us.

Feldman: There are also smaller, entrepreneurial companies whose people are involved. We both have a board member from the Blu Dot design firm, for example.

Q So there's no competition for good board members?

Viso: No, I don't think so.

Palaces for the people

Q In 1977 Nathaniel Burt published a social history of American Art Museums called "Palaces for the People." Obviously that alluded to the Victorian era notion of art museums as places to educate, uplift and ennoble ordinary people, particularly when there were many immigrants arriving and most people didn't have much access to art. So the notion of "Palaces for the People," is sort of tailor made for an institution like the MIA with its grand McKim, Meade and White building. But is that an appropriate metaphor to describe the Walker now?

Viso: I'd say that the Walker has changed its position and shifted its language. Its mission statement is to be a catalyst for creative expression. The idea is to be a social agent trying to foster creative and cultural citizenry. We're contributing to the vitality of the community so that people can take creativity back into their lives.

Q The Walker's 2005 expansion dramatically changed the building's geography; it was intentionally built as a kind of culture mall rather than culture palace.

Viso: A city of art, rather than a central edifice.

Q Does it work?

Viso: Yeah. We have been rolling out a whole new way-finding system. More of it will be unveiled over the next months. Rather than do an architectural intervention, we're using color and signage. We're not physically changing the walls, but we're using movable screens and electronic technology to amplify and clarify that the Barnes Tower is really the museum tower and the Herzog tower is the theater tower. Now when you park, you really will have two choices. As for what some have described as its maze-like quality -- the intent there was always to have a sense of discovery and always something new.

Q What about the MIA and its huge building?

Feldman: I have a trustee who keeps proposing that we have golf cart tours through the museum, or Segways. We're rethinking how we use the new Target wing and how people find their way to its rotunda. It's certainly a challenge to get from the 3rd Avenue entrance to that wing and there's no way to do it easily because there are staff offices intervening. I think there will, someday, be a time when the space that is now staff offices will be all galleries and the staff will be somewhere else. But that's not in the short term plan.

Downtown

Q Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

Viso: I'd like to say a little about our partnership with the Hennepin Theatre Trust, Artspace and the city of Minneapolis on the redesign of Hennepin Avenue. Tom Hoch of the Theatre Trust has been very involved in the conversation. We got an NEA grant for a year-long planning process called Plan-It Hennepin, and the idea is that by September we'll have a plan and will try some programming experiments on the avenue.

We have city planners in the meetings, too, but conversations totally shift when artists are involved. The city planners start talking about easement, sidewalks, very pragmatic things. And the artists talk about experiences, aesthetics, the life of people on the street. So when you bring those two things together it's a beautiful conversation.

I think the city and everyone involved has seen the value of having a culturally focused conversation, which in the past the business community has led. I applaud the Downtown Council for inviting arts leaders into that conversation because it did galvanize us in a positive way. It's going to take private or corporate investment to make a lot of these aspirations happen, but some of it is already underway and people are starting to align resources. This is where artists and designers can shape aspirations and enable people's creativity.

Fun plans

Q So, where do you two want to be in, say, three to five years?

Viso: Definitely here. I feel like I've just been through a four-year transition and am just beginning to see the fruits of my efforts take shape. I hope that in four to five years the sculpture garden will be finished. I'm trying to foster more crossovers between our departments and to enable artists to come in through one program and exit through another. There are so many opportunities for us to really use the whole platform instead of just the independent parts, and artists are very interested in blurring all of those lines. It takes less bureaucracy or less autonomy and more working together. So I'm trying to support collaboration as much internally as externally.

Feldman: I'd certainly echo Olga. I've worked so hard to put together my dream team and I've done that, so now it's exciting to see what we can all create together. I hope by the summer we will be adopting a new four-year strategic plan. This will be my second here and I'm really, really excited about it. I've always told the board that I'm challenge-driven, so as long as I see challenge, I'm here. And I see lots of great challenges.

Q Are you having fun?

Feldman: Absolutely.

Viso: I'm asked that question all the time, and I have to say it's just starting to be really fun.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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