Minneapolis Institute of Arts no longer a men's club

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 25, 2007 - 11:44 PM

A Memphis art historian will lead the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, giving the Twin Cities its fifth female museum director.

Kaywin Feldman

New Minneapolis Institute of Arts director Kaywin Feldman in the MIA’s new Target wing. Feldman, who visited the museum Tuesday, is currently director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and will start her new position in January.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Ending a century of male leadership, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) has for the first time chosen a woman as its director and president.

Kaywin Feldman, 41, director of the much-smaller Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee for the past eight years, will start her new job Jan. 1. She replaces William Griswold, who is leaving to head the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.

"Kaywin is a wunderkind who first became a director at 29 and has been recognized as a star in the museum world for a long time," said Brian Palmer, chairman of the MIA's board.

With her appointment, five of the Twin Cities' leading museums will be led by women, which is "probably unprecedented," said John Walsh, former director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks ago, Walker Art Center announced that Olga Viso, also 41, was leaving the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., to head the Minneapolis museum starting Jan. 1. She succeeds Kathy Halbreich, who became the museum's first female director 16 years ago. The University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum, the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis and the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul are all headed by women.

"Maybe gender just doesn't matter any more," said Gail Andrews, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and director of Alabama's Birmingham Museum of Art. "I'm not saying that five in one town is not unusual," she added, noting that women run major art museums in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, San Francisco and Seattle. "But maybe it's less of an issue today, especially in Minneapolis," which is known for its egalitarian spirit.

Trying to build momentum

American born and internationally educated, Feldman, 41, was unanimously chosen by the museum's 11-member search committee, which interviewed several finalists, including at least one European and some with more experience at larger institutions.

That selection was approved Tuesday by the institute's 60-member board. Citing her energy, experience and "tremendous" leadership skills, Palmer, who headed the search committee, said "it's very clear that she offered the best fit for our museum right now."

Both the MIA and the Walker have recently completed major expansions and will expect their new directors to increase audiences, develop popular programs and otherwise capitalize on the momentum generated by the additions.

Staffing will be a key issue at the institute, where at least four departments -- prints and drawings, photography, decorative arts, and African culture -- are leaderless.

Walsh praised Feldman as a well-trained art historian, effective organizer and sound manager who "has a very sophisticated sense of what goes on in the art world. ... Nobody should be deceived by the fact that she's relatively young, because she is thoroughly experienced."

A focus on community

After meeting MIA staff and board members Tuesday, Feldman talked about her career and plans. Big on community outreach, she said she was most proud of having "changed the face of the museum" in Memphis by developing shows and programs that attracted black residents, who make up 60 percent of the city's population.

At the MIA, her main goal will be "having the community be, absolutely, at the center of what we do."

In Memphis, she was known for balancing populist and high-art exhibitions. This year, she organized a photo show called "Elvis Is in the Building" to mark the 30th anniversary of Presley's death. The museum has also presented music photos by Annie Leibovitz, romantic paintings by the illustrator Maxfield Parrish, Old Master paintings from an English collection, and impressionist paintings by Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro.

Palmer said her salary had not yet been finalized. Judging from Griswold's pay and that of the Walker's Viso, it is likely to be in the $350,000 to $400,000 range.

An international background

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    Like the MIA, the Memphis museum that Feldman now runs has a broad collection ranging from ancient artifacts to Old Master paintings and contemporary art. However, it is less than one-fifth the size of the Minneapolis Institute when compared by some key measures:

    Annual budget: $25 million at MIA vs. $5.2 million in Memphis

    Endowment: $191 million vs. $5 million

    Staff: 254 vs. 60

    Membership: 25,534 vs. 3,000

    Attendance: 466,000 vs. 80,000 to 100,000

    Collection: 80,000-plus objects vs. 8,000

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Kaywin Feldman