Having assembled a roster of top-notch curators, the Minneapolis museum is swinging for the fences with a series of ambitious exhibits.
Ancient Chinese warriors, Rembrandt portraits, sports photos, Japanese pop art and a dash of Stephen Colbert's "truthiness." That's the dazzling menu of populist and high culture that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts will serve up in the next 19 months.
The five shows announced Tuesday signal the ambition of a museum that is aiming to muscle into the American art scene's top league.
When institute director Kaywin Feldman arrived from Memphis four years ago, she set three goals to put the museum on the national map: Showcase its stellar but largely unsung collection, organize exhibitions and share them with other institutions, and publish major catalogs.
But first she had to assemble a big-league team. Feldman lured curators from museums in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia, to fill six vacant posts.
"All the exhibitions scheduled for the next two years are organized by MIA curators," she noted proudly at a preview Tuesday.
Even Yang Liu, the Chinese-born head of the Asian art department who came just three months ago from the Museum of New South Wales, has a show on the books.
"The First Emperor: The Terra Cotta Warriors," opening next fall, will feature 10 sets of life-size terra cotta soldiers and horses, plus other treasures from the 2,200-year-old burial site of Qin Shihuang, the warrior king who turned seven squabbling states into a single country and launched construction of the Great Wall.
Fulfilling Feldman's goals for the institution, most of the shows announced Tuesday include catalogs written by museum staff along with international collaborators. One show will travel to Santa Fe, N.M., and another to Cleveland and Raleigh, N.C.
Next summer's "Rembrandt in America" promises to be the "largest ever" gathering of the master's portraits on loan from American museums and private collections. It will feature 24 paintings by the 17th-century Dutch master plus more than 20 other pictures by his contemporaries that were once thought to be by Rembrandt.
That show was initiated by the North Carolina Museum of Art, which added the institute as a partner after Feldman called and offered to lend the MIA's "Lucretia," one of Rembrandt's most famous and tender paintings. Minneapolis curator Tom Rassieur also put together a second exhibit of Rembrandt drawings and etchings to flesh out the artist's career.
With "The Sports Show" in February, photography curator David Little will survey a popular field that rarely hits museum walls. In more than 100 century-spanning photos, plus installations, videos and films, the show will cover everything from an early image of Babe Ruth to basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar while still a New York teenager, to a 17-camera video portrait of French soccer phenom Zinedine Zidane. A companion exhibit, "The Sports Show: Minnesota," will focus on athletics in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, including an Annie Leibovitz portrait of a svelte, bare-chested Kirby Puckett.
First out of the box is "Edo Pop," opening Oct. 30. Drawn mostly from the museum's own world-renowned collection of Japanese prints, it highlights popular culture in Edo-period Japan (1615-1868) when courtesans, Kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers and other entertainers achieved a cult status akin to that of pop stars today, along with 21st-century spinoffs on traditional motifs.
The 120-piece Chinese exhibit, which opens next October, is a variation on one that Liu organized in Sydney, with objects on loan from 13 museums in Shaanxi province in northwest China. It will have "mostly newly excavated works," Liu said, including bronze birds and terra cotta replicas of the civil servants, entertainers, acrobats, horses and stable hands that the emperor figured he'd need during his travels in the afterlife.
Comedian Stephen Colbert, who coined the term "truthiness" to describe faux facts, inspired contemporary curator Liz Armstrong to organize "More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness." It promises to be a wild collection of photos, sculpture, paintings and installations by an international cast intent on exploring what "reality" means and looks like today.
After opening in Santa Fe, the show will arrive in Minneapolis in March 2013. No one is promising, but smart money predicts a Colbert intervention.