Gestures of affection and respect, gifts roll in on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions.
Minnesota museums got a windfall of them in 2015, especially the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which marked its centennial, and Walker Art Center, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of its rebranding as a contemporary art center.
The gifts range from handmade birchbark baskets at the Minnesota Historical Society to photos by Minnesota artists at the Weisman Art Museum, an unusual tapestry at the Walker and a pair of spectacular 18th-century silver “Archangel” sculptures at the institute. In each case, the objects add to existing collections or expand the museums’ holdings into new or previously undeveloped collecting territory.
The institute received more than 400 works of art from 58 supporters as gifts or promised gifts, ranging from a Japanese stoneware jar to a fluorescent light sculpture by contemporary British artist Tracey Emin. Earlier in the year the museum announced a bequest of 670 Japanese and Korean treasures from St. Paul heiress Mary Griggs Burke, bringing its centennial gift total to more than 1,000 objects.
Likewise, more than 120 Walker supporters gave the center more than 250 paintings, sculptures, drawings, videos and other art, a selection of which was shown last spring. Fittingly, one of its most distinctive gifts was a monumental self-portrait tapestry given by artist Chuck Close, whose career was launched back in 1969 when Walker bought his first important painting — another, much grittier self-portrait.
Angels from Naples
Fashioned from gleaming silver and gilt-bronze, the Archangels are a dazzling and highly unusual addition to the institute. On display through Jan. 3 near the museum’s entrance at 2400 3rd Av. S., they are masterpieces of 3-D storytelling that awe kids and adults alike. Later in January the sculptures will move to the museum’s silver galleries.
“I had never seen anything like them and couldn’t believe how large they were when they first arrived,” said Jennifer Komar Olivarez, the museum’s acting curator of decorative arts.
The largest, the “Archangel Saint Michael in Triumph,” is an action-packed showstopper that stands more than 3 feet tall. It depicts the warrior saint as a lithe young swordsman in shining armor waving his blade overhead as he stomps a dog-headed dragon underfoot. Symbolizing the devil incarnate, the beast is a nasty hybrid critter with short wings, furry loins and a writhing serpent’s tail. Glowering at the heroic saint through beady eyes, the dragon bares its long fangs in a menacing snarl.
Not to be outdone in the costume department, Saint Michael himself has knee-length wings with beautifully articulated feathers and wears a flowing scarf incised with floral decorations. Strikingly handsome under his plumed helmet, Michael is a teen dream of youthful vigor as he vanquishes the devil.
By comparison, his pal “Saint Raphael” is a tad shorter and perched on a golden rock above a pool from which a fierce fish glares at him. Raphael also has midcalf wings, curly hair and a fancy, flower-decorated outfit all made of silver. His sculpture illustrates a complicated fish tale involving divine intervention, miracle cures and a pet dog who howls and snarls at the fish.
Both sculptures were made about 1780 in Naples, Italy, most likely for a private chapel in the villa of a wealthy family.
“We don’t know ultimately where they came from,” said Olivarez. “We have traced them back to the Gargiulo family in Naples, which owned them in the early 20th century. From that family they went to a dealer in Madrid from which the museum [benefactors] purchased them.”
Longtime institute trustees Al and Mary Agnes McQuinn bought the sculptures and immediately gave them to the museum.
“The McQuinns didn’t have these in their house,” said Olivarez.
But other gifts came from collectors who donated things they’d long held as part of their own collections, including contemporary ceramics, glass, a folk-art chair and a number of important paintings. Those include a lyrical Jean-Baptiste Corot “View of Rome” that once belonged to James J. Hill, one of the institute’s founders, and seven pictures from the estate of Myron Kunin, a trustee whose $300 million American art collection is on loan to the museum.
“Hill purchased the Corot in 1913, shortly before his death, and it was given to us by Johanna Maud Hill, a great-granddaughter,” said Patrick Noon, the museum’s paintings curator. “It’s an important legacy picture that she very generously donated now, on the 100th anniversary of the building that Hill helped establish.”