Your attention, please

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 28, 2012 - 9:09 PM

The Weisman Art Museum's arresting architecture frames an iconoclastic collection of ceramics, paintings and furniture.

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The expanded Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.

When the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum opened in 1993, "this became a major museum overnight," says curator Diane Mullin. The steel-and-brick edifice, expanded in 2011, certainly grabs attention. The Weisman is considered one of the most impressive buildings in the Twin Cities.

Gehry designed the Weisman concurrently with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, and the Bilbao is considered one of the great architectural achievements of the 20th century (according to a 2010 survey of global architects by Vanity Fair magazine).

The two museums are strikingly similar. They share the same stainless steel curves. They're both constructed from stacked cubist forms. Their mirror-like façades reflect the twilight perfectly.

But the so-called "Baby Bilbao" was never vying for glamour on par with the Guggenheim's, which boasts a collection of top-tier 20th-century art. Located on the campus of the University of Minnesota, the Weisman has more modest intentions.

The museum was founded in 1934 as Northrop Auditorium's Little Gallery. It was soon given a slightly more ambitious name -- University Art Gallery. Designed to be approachable and friendly, it was supposed to be a place where Midwestern college students could comfortably encounter and learn about art, says Mullin -- "many for the first time."

To achieve this goal, the Weisman has been quietly (and inexpensively) building its iconoclastic art collection for more than 70 years. It relies mostly on gifts and bequests from artists, collectors and University of Minnesota alumni.

In many ways, explains Mullin, Gehry's steel-and-brick structure was built like a customized art frame for the museum's unusual range of paintings, ceramics and furniture. "The interior spaces were really designed to showcase the collection," she says.

Thanks to the museum's recent $14 million expansion, the Weisman is even better at presenting its collection. In accordance with Gehry's original vision for the building, the museum just unveiled four new galleries, each devoted to a separate aspect of the permanent collection.

The new Edith Carlson Gallery, for example, was endowed by the estate of a Minnesota-born artist whose minimalist paintings conjured the sun-drenched palette of the American Southwest (Carlson also left some paintings to the museum). Built to showcase works on paper, the windowless Carlson Gallery features low ceilings and careful illumination to avoid fading the delicate art.

As Mullin observes, "the new galleries are better at filtering light." An example of this can be observed in the new ceramics gallery, Mullin's favorite, a bright space with a dramatic window overlooking the Mississippi River. This is the first space designated solely for the Weisman's ceramics collection, numbering nearly 4,000 pieces.

The current displays include pottery by internationally known local artist Warren MacKenzie and ancient American Indian Mimbres pottery discovered by the university's archaeologists.

Designed to showcase museum's sizable American art collection, the spacious new Woodhouse Gallery is the most dramatic of all the rooms. It boasts high ceilings and a geometric skylight that hints at the building's playful exterior. A room like this is perfect for showing off the occasional big-ticket painting by Marsden Hartley, Alfred Maurer or Georgia O'Keeffe (the Weisman has a few of each).

American political scientist Edward R. Wright is largely responsible for populating the newly unveiled Korean Foundation Gallery. Head of the Korean-American Fulbright Commission from 1967 to 1978, Wright was fascinated with Korean culture and craft, so he started collecting local furniture and other household objects, including a few pieces from North Korea.

At the time of Wright's death in 1988, the University Art Gallery was organizing an exhibition of his personal collection. After that it was simply bequeathed to the museum. It includes 200 pieces of furniture -- mostly cabinets, boxes and chests as well as a few pieces of Korean folk art and ceramics.

"It's a huge collection," says Mullin of the Korean furniture, "the largest in the U.S." Along with Wright's carefully built collection, the Korea Foundation Gallery also houses paintings from a 1955 University Art Gallery exhibit featuring faculty from Seoul National University.

"We have all these interesting strengths," says Mullin of the meandering Weisman collection. The museum also has a cache of Depression-era art funded by the Works Progress Administration. There's even a good amount of Minnesota art, dating from the Great Depression to the present.

Thanks to the expansion, the average student or museum-goer can finally navigate these surprising specialties, says Mullin. "We're finally able to be more logical about the collection."

Christy DeSmith • 612-673-1754

  • WEISMAN ART MUSEUM

    Address: 333 E. River Rd., Minneapolis

    Hours: 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tue. and Thu.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wed.; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

    Admission: Free

    Origins: Founded in 1934 as Northrop Auditorium's Little Gallery, the organization was little more than a modest collection of paintings. Thanks to the WPA Federal Arts Project, though, it was possible to build the collection on the cheap. Later renamed the University Art Gallery, it eventually accumulated impressive works by Roy Lichtenstein, Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley. But the museum didn't achieve international status until 1993, when it premiered its new steel-and-brick building by architect Frank Gehry.

    Signature draws: The exterior of the Weisman, which is known as the "Baby Bilbao," stands alone as a piece of art. Thanks to Gehry's recent expansion, the museum now boasts improved permanent galleries for two of its most important collections: the largest cache of Korean furniture outside Korea and 4,000 pieces of unusual ceramics.

    Hidden treasures: Named for a Minnesota-born artist, the new Edith Carlson Gallery is a light, airy space with knockout views of the Mississippi River. Tucked to the side of the front lobby, this stunning (but modestly sized) gallery was designed to showcase all the little-seen works on paper in the Weisman's collection.

    Gift shop: The attractive shop features artisans with ties to the University of Minnesota. It stocks a variety of items, including pottery, stuffed toys, scarves and handbags. Don's miss the selection of geometric jewelry by Minneapolis resident Tia Salmela Keobounpheng.

    Food options: The Weisman lacks an in-house restaurant, though a host of fast-food options are available at the adjacent Coffman Memorial Union (Starbucks, Erbert & Gerbert's, plenty of pizza options). Pickier palates should head to nearby Stadium Village for its coffeehouses, Asian restaurants and collegiate watering holes like Sally's and Stub & Herb's.

    Information: weisman.umn.edu or 612-625-9495.

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