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Richard Hillstrom (1915-2014), Lutheran minister, art collector, museum namesake

Posted by: Mary Abbe Updated: December 16, 2014 - 5:14 PM

Richard Hillstrom at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts,1993. Star Tribune photo by Rita Reed

The Rev. Richard Hillstrom, a Lutheran minister who parlayed a modest salary, a discerning eye and a passion for American art into a museum-quality collection, died at his home in Edina on Dec. 16. His health had been failing in recent weeks, and his death was announced by Gary Langness, a longtime friend. He was 99.

Though Hillstrom devoted his long professional career to the ministry, it was as an art collector that he made his most enduring mark on the culture of Minnesota. His most important legacy is likely to be the collection of about 250 American modernist paintings and drawings that he donated to his namesake Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, his alma mater.

Over the years he also gave the museum an endowment totaling $1.5 million as of 2012. Asked how a minister could amass so much money, he credited smart investing through Lutheran Brotherhood (now Thrivent Financial) at a time when the stock market was strong, according to the Gustavus Quarterly.

He was also founding curator of the Lutheran Brotherhood (now Thrivent Financial) art collection which features Old Master prints and drawings on Christian themes by Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt  and others.

Starting in the 1940s when Hillstrom was ministering to a parish in the hard-scrabble steel milling town of Gary, Indiana, he would visit the Art Institute of Chicago on his days off and then poke through the city's galleries and antique shops where he was drawn to paintings by Swedish American artists. His budget was extremely modest, and he later recalled the guilt he felt at having bought, for $5 each, original lithographs by Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton, three of the country's leading regionalists. Each of those prints would be worth thousands now but, at the time, his $15 purchase felt like a fortune on a minister's salary.

Over his 70 year career, Hillstrom amassed a refined and important collection of paintings by early 20th century American modernists Maurice Prendergast, Guy Pene du Bois, Everett Shinn, John Twachtman, Willard Metcalf and Reginald Marsh plus prints and drawings by John Sloan, Grant Wood, George Luks and Edward Hopper among others.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts staged a show of his collection in 1993, and he gave pieces of art to the Institute as well as to the Weisman Art Museum, the Minnesota Historical Society, the American Swedish Institute and the Minnesota Museum of American Art among other venues.

"I admired Rick greatly, both for his deep, self-taught knowledge of art and for his supportive friendship," said Donald Myers, director of the Hillstrom Museum at Gustavus." He was eager to make it possible for others to be affected by art in the way that he was. And he was always happy to guide and encourage friends in their interest in collecting art and in supporting art institutions.  

"He was a great mentor and friend to me, always ready with encouragement and advice but never insistent on having things done just his way," Myers continued.  "He enjoyed his friends and loved to be able to joke with and tease them and have the same kind of good-natured ribbing come his way."

Born in Dassel, Minn, a town of 800 about 50 miles west of the Twin Cities, Hillstrom and his four brothers were first generation Americans, their parents Alma and Martin Hillstrom having immigrated from Sweden to the United States. Following his 1938 graduation from Gustavus Adolphus College, he studied theology and was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1942. 

After serving the Gary parish for five years during World War II, he was an assistant minister at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis for five years. He spent the bulk of his career, 30 years, as chaplain at St. Paul's Bethesda Lutheran Medical Center from which he retired in 1982. In retirement he went on to establish the Lutheran Brotherhood (now Thrivent) art collection which has toured exhibitions to communities and churches throughout the Midwest.

At the time of the 1993 Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibit, his friend Edward Lindell, a senior vice president of Lutheran Brotherhood, said that Hillstrom's generosity was characteristic of a man who was by temperament  "a great mixture of art sophistication and Lutheran piety."

Robert Stearns (1947-2014) ex-Walker Art Center performing arts director.

Posted by: Mary Abbe Updated: December 15, 2014 - 4:51 PM

Robert Stearns, who headed Walker Art Center's performing arts department from 1982 - 1988, died December 3 at his home in Palm Springs, Ca after a brief illness. He was 67.

While working at the Walker, Stearns was the executive producer of the Minneapolis workshop and concert performances of "The Gospel at Colonus," a contemporary reimagining of Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus," directed by Lee Breuer and composed by Bob Telson. Co-produced by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the show was presented as part of the 1983 Next Wave Festival. It subsequently toured internationally from 1984 - 1988.

In 1984 he was executive producer for the Walker's staging of "the Knee Plays for the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down," directed by Robert Wilson with music by David Byrne.

During his Walker tenure Stearns also oversaw performances and residencies by such Walker stalwarts as John Cage, Spalding Gray, Ntozake Shange, William Burroughs, Robert Bly, Fab Five Freddy, the Trisha Brown Dance Company and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Stearns left the Walker in 1988 to become the first director of the Wexner Center for the Arts which was still under construction at Ohio State University in Columbus. Exhibitions organized under his leadership include a series surveying art in Europe and America beginning with the 1950s and '60s, followed by the 1970s and '80s, and wrapping up with "New Works for New Spaces: Into the Nineties."

In 1992 he established Stearns + Associates, a Columbus-based firm providing curatorial and arts programming to galleries, arts councils and festivals throughout the country. The firm produced the exhibition "Photography and Beyond in Japan: Space, Time and Memory," which opened at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo in November 1994 and subsequently toured to the Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City; Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC and was presented in the United States at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Denver Art  Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum in Honolulu.

Over the following decades, Stearns' exhibitions focused on Ohio artists, early-American painting, artists from Mexico City, and visions of the American heartland.

While based in Columbus, Stearns retained ties to Minnesota, serving from 2000 - 2006 as senior program director and curator for Arts Midwest, a Minneapolis-based non-profit that produces exhibitions and programs that travel throughout the Midwest.

"Robert was an extremely gifted curator," said David Fraher, president and CEO of Arts Midwest, in a statement. "He was quirky, erudite, curious, and extraordinarily thorough with his research. He was also so very bright and passionate about his work, the artists he worked with, and the projects he built."

Fraher credited Stearns with helping Arts Midwest expand and strengthen its ability to produce international programs and exhibitions.

Prior to arriving in Minnesota, Stearns worked in New York first as assistant director of the influential Paula Cooper Gallery (1970-72) and then at The Kitchen (1973-77), a pioneer in video and installation art. He was director of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center from 1978-1982. He graduated from the University of California, San Diego in 1970.

A celebration of his life was held Dec.10 in Palm Springs.

Museum extends holiday hours for "Italian Style" fashion show

Posted by: Mary Abbe Updated: December 9, 2014 - 11:02 AM

Give your holiday date a weekend of la dolce vita at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The museum is extending the weekend hours of its popular show "Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945." The exhibit will remain open until 9 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 26 and Saturday, Dec. 27 and again the following weekend, Friday, Jan. 2 and Sat. Jan. 3. The show closes Sunday, Jan. 4.

For ticket information: artsmia.org

In the aftermath of W.W.II, with its cities in ruins and industries struggling, Italy turned to fashion and design to help revive its economy. Exhibitions of sleek, efficient and stylish modern Italian housewares toured the United States, offering Americans a glimpse of Eurostyle that helped bring good design to the masses. Fashion, too, was enlisted in the revitalization program with designers in Florence, Rome and Milan turning out glorious evening wear and chic sports ensembles that brought casual glamor to Middle America.

Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, "Italian Style" features about 100 ensembles from the V&A collection. Spanning more than 70 years, it includes gowns worn on screen by film stars (Audrey Hepburn, et al) plus pieces from such prominent fashion houses as Valentino, Armani, Gucci, Fendi, Pucci, Prada, Missoni, Dolce and Gabbana and trend setters young and old. The show will travel to the Portland Art Museum in Portland, OR and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, following its Minneapolis presentation.

Minneapolis collector's $41.6 million African art sale sets NY record

Posted by: Mary Abbe Updated: November 14, 2014 - 8:32 PM
 

Myron Kunin, art collector and Regis Corp, founder

The African art collection of the late Minneapolis collector Myron Kunin sold for a record $41.6 million at Sotheby's in New York on Tuesday.

An extremely rare Senufo Female Statue (pictured at right) shattered the previous world record when it went for $12,037,000. Carved by an artist known as the Master of Sikasso, the Ivory Coast sculpture is one of only five Senufo figures of that type known.

Calling it the Kunin Senufo Female Statue, Sotheby's described it as a "quintessential masterpiece of African abstraction." It has been widely exhibited,  published in numerous important books on the subject, and was included in the Museum of Modern Art's pivotal 1984 exhibition "Primitivism in Modern Art."

Three additional sculptures from Kunin's collection fetched record prices: a Ngbaka Statue of the Mythical Ancestor Setu which went for $4,085,000, a Fang-Betsi Reluquary Head, which sold for $3,637,000 and a Kongo-Yombe Maternity Group which fetched $3,525,000.

The Kunin sale brought in more than $10 million above the high estimate that Sotheby's had set before the sale. The auction house described the results as a "historic total" that was the highest ever for African art. The sale results totaled $41,617,500.

Of the 164 pieces in Kunin's African art collection, all but 40 sold Tuesday morning.

A Minneapolis-based businessman, Kunin (1928-2013) bought out a hair-care business founded by his father and parlayed it into a $2.7 billion enterprise, Regis Corporation, with more than 9,700 salons and stores owned or franchised in the United States, England and France.

Passionate, independent-minded and discerning about art, he amassed world-class collections in several fields, most notably American art from 1900 to 1950. His holdings in that area -- including pieces by Georgia O'Keeffe, Philip Guston, Morris Kantor, Marsden Hartley and Guy Pene Du Bois -- are considered by some to be even more important than the African collection.

More than 75 of Kunin's American paintings were shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2005 in a show called "Villa America." The museum owns very few American paintings from the first half of the 20th century and officials there obviously hoped that Kunin would give or bequeath some key works to the museum where he was a longtime trustee.

Gregarious but publicity shy, Kunin and his wife Anita generously supported many cultural institutions in the Twin Cities. Those gifts were and are typically given in the name of Regis Corporation including the lead gift for the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota, the Regis Master series of exhibitions at the Northern Clay Center and the Regis Foundation for Breast Cancer Research.

Often Kunin bought art in areas that were overlooked, unfashionable or neglected by museums as well as other collectors. As a result he sometimes was ahead of the herd and able to acquire unusual works for comparatively modest prices. At the same time he was quite willing to pay top dollar for prime pieces and he knew very well what they were. Unlike many business moguls who dabble in art, he did not rely on the advice of hired curators but on his own highly educated eye and mind.

"People know I'm psychotic about art and they submit a lot of things to me, but I can't buy everything because it depends on the cash flow of the moment," he told the Star Tribune in a 2005 interview. "So I'm sometimes forced to sell some things to buy something else."

In 1992, for example, he made headlines when he sold a painting by the 19th century British eccentric Richard Dadd at just shy of $3 million, then an auction record for a Victorian-era picture. It was snapped up by English musical producer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Minneapolis curator to head Palm Springs Art Museum

Posted by: Mary Abbe Updated: November 14, 2014 - 6:58 PM

Elizabeth Armstrong, Minneapolis Institute of Arts curator. Star Tribune photo by Marlin Levison

Elizabeth Armstrong, founding curator of the contemporary art department at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), will become executive director of the Palm Springs Art Museum in January 2015.

A dynamic personality who brought a casual style and keen intellect to her job, Armstrong joined the Minneapolis museum in August  2008 to head a new department of contemporary art and to serve as the museum's assistant director for exhibitions and programs, then a new post. The museum had previously collected contemporary art, but in a haphazard way that left huge gaps in its holdings along with masterpieces by Francis Bacon, Chuck Close, Philip Guston, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly and others.

Armstrong focused the acquisition program on contemporary works that extended or interacted in unexpected ways with  the museum's holdings of traditional art. Key purchases included a photo by Yinke Shonibare, a British-Nigerian photographer whose staged pictures pose provocative questions about colonialism among other issues.

At the MIA Armstrong also founded the Center for Alternative Museum Practice (CAMP), a department that experiments with fresh ways to mix contemporary and traditional art and to engage the public in its appreciation and understanding. She raised $4 million for new acquisitions and curated a number of key exhibitions including "Global Remix I," " What is Sacred?," "More Real: Art in the Age of Truthiness," and "Until Now: Collecting the New (1960-2010)."

In Palm Springs she will oversee a museum that operates from three sites. The main facility is the Palm Springs Art Museum, a 150,000 sq ft. building in the city's center. That entity has a satelite of the same name in Palm Desert and an Architecture and Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion which just opened just opened on Sunday, Nov. 9.

Armstrong succeeds Dr. Steven Nash who oversaw the Palm Springs museum's growth starting in 2007. He is responsible for adding the two satellite locations.

Prior to her tenure at the MIA, Armstrong was Acting Director and Chief Curator at the Orange County Museum of Art (2001-2008) and Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (1996-2001). She spent 14 years at Walker Art Center as an associate curator (1982-1996), and before that worked in various capacities doing research and curatorial assistance at museums in Berkeley and San Francisco, California and as a grants administrator at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D. C. She earned a B. A. in American Studies from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA and a M.A. in art history from the University of California, Berkeley.

Among Armstrong's award winning publications are the books Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury, and American Moderns: Villa America, 1900-1950 which showcased highlights from the collection of the late Myron Kunin, a Minneapolis-based arts patron and influential mentor to Armstrong and others.

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