The first show at the Minnesota Museum of American Art’s new home in downtown St. Paul is like a housewarming party. Metaphorically speaking, the art on display is a selection of fancy hors d’oeuvres and nice Champagne along with the more casual chips and dip and cheese curds.
It’s all here to usher in a new era for the once-transient 125-year-old art institution known as “The M.”
The housewarming show is called “100 Years and Counting,” and it offers a funky selection of 45 two- and three-dimensional works from the museum’s collection in a new ground-floor gallery and adjacent hallway at the rehabbed historic Pioneer-Endicott Buildings. The latter space once was an alleyway, while the gallery’s tiled floor was rescued from some iteration of the building’s storied past.
What makes this show curious is the way it groups seemingly different works in what is otherwise a nice beginning for the museum’s next chapter.
At the gallery entrance, for example, visitors are greeted by a giant multi-panel collage, “AIM and Art” (2014), by Duluth-based Frank Big Bear, who grew up on the White Earth Reservation. Featuring 144 images of Native American leaders, it faces a graceful watercolor by Ojibwe artist Patrick DesJarlait that shows a pair of fishermen on Red Lake, piling fish into a boat against a watery backdrop that’s very much in the jagged style of Italian Futurism.
Elsewhere, an Alec Soth portrait of a North Dakota oil fracker, shot for the New York Times in 2012, hangs next to Margaret Bourke-White’s historic black-and-white photograph of two South African gold miners in 1950.
The idea behind these juxtapositions, according to executive director Kristin Makholm, is to create “conversations between disparate works” and “exciting new narratives” that are “just as interesting as the individual artworks themselves.”
Indeed, these groupings are often thought-provoking. And there is a lot of good stuff to see and experience. But the curators have failed to provide viewers with enough context to truly initiate the kinds of conversations about colonialization, privilege, racism, classism and many other -isms that the M seems to want to have.
In the case of the works by Big Bear and DesJarlait, obviously they’re both Native American artists from Minnesota — but what else? Some text to explain these groupings would help.
Outside the gallery entrance, a window display showcases a gorgeous, minimal gray-and-deep-olive-green stoneware vase circa 1959 by Warren MacKenzie, the famed Minnesota potter who died Dec. 31, and his first wife, Alix MacKenzie. This vase is perched next to blackware pottery by renowned Native American ceramicist Maria Martinez, of the Tewa tribe in New Mexico.
Makholm has written extensive wall labels about each artist. Visitors hungry for more info can access a mobile platform (text “mmaa” to 56512). But when it comes to unpacking the pairings of works, that’s up to the viewer.
Like a housewarming party, the focus of this show is about having a nice selection of stuff. As Makholm put it in an e-mail, it’s a balance of “well-known and not-so-well-known artists, as well as a good balance of local and national artists. In other words, something for everybody.”
Yes, but doesn’t everybody want to know what’s going on, and why they were invited to the party? One of the first questions you ask someone at a dinner party is “How do you know the host?” I found myself wishing that this show had allowed the works of art to ask questions like that of each other, and create more dynamic and even radical conversations for viewers, leaving them with more to think about.
A 2001 photograph by Wing Young Huie of a man in Locke, Calif., sitting in the same chair in which he sat as a kid in this town built by, and for, Chinese-Americans, hangs next to the photo “A Manchu Lady” (1910-12), shot by Lucy Monroe Calhoun, wife of the ambassador to China. It’s a striking juxtaposition: a more documentary approach to Chinese-American culture next to a shot taken from a place of privilege, of a culture outside the photographer’s own.
One of the driving forces behind the M’s new space is an interest in fostering a space for community engagement and learning. We’re all at the new house and the hors d’oeuvres have arrived. Now we are waiting for the actual conversations to begin. Cheers!