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Ella Pillsbury Crosby: Museum lioness

  • Updated: December 29, 2012 - 10:48 PM

Ella Pillsbury Crosby, 96, was born into one of Minneapolis' richest flour-milling families. With other wealthy women of the era, she joined the "Friends" of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. But soon she forged a new path, as one of the first women to serve on the museum's board of directors.

She had barely begun speaking to the packed house in the Pillsbury Auditorium at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts when a voice -- her mother's -- called sharply from the front row.

"Ella, where are your gloves?!"

Museum legend has it that Crosby fished them out of her purse and simply carried on.

At the time, the Friends of the Institute was a "by-invitation-only" club for wives and daughters of the museum's founders. As its president, Crosby would change that, doubling its membership. She started a guide program and gift shop, and staged fundraising fashion shows and benefits.

The institute had benefited from generations of Pillsbury largesse, from bequests of ancient Chinese bronzes to rare Japanese prints. By the late 1990s, Crosby was the longest-surviving member of the Friends. She wanted to honor the group and her husband, Tom, who died a decade earlier.

Her vision was grand: sculptures to top the empty pedestals flanking the 24th Street entrance. A pair of Chinese lions seemed just the ticket.

A curator was dispatched to China to find some. The Chinese balked at an export license for the antiques. So new ones in the 18th-century style were commissioned.

The lions arrived from China with great ceremony on a sunny day in 1998. Crosby, a passel of Pillsburys and neighborhood people watched huge cranes hoist them into place.

A neighbor piped up, "Oh, my, isn't it nice to see the lions back again," recalled Robert Jacobsen, the curator who commissioned them.

"Of course," Crosby later wrote, "there had never been lions there, but the front steps always looked like they needed some."

The lions peer out over Washburn Fair Oaks Park, where Crosby went sledding as a child.

MARY ABBE

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