From his modest gallery in a former grocery store in south Minneapolis, photo dealer Martin Weinstein has built a national — even international — reputation as a shrewd businessman with a keen eye and a generous, down-home instinct for what he calls “killer” pictures.

Over the years he has nurtured the careers of several Minnesota artists and given more than 500 photos to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in addition to other art. An eclectic selection of about 70 of his photos — of New York street scenes, boxers, musicians, workers, nudes, abstractions and funny stuff — will be shown at the museum in “31 Years: Gifts From Martin Weinstein,” which opens Saturday.

When he left his partnership in one of Minneapolis’ top law firms and launched the gallery 17 years ago, Weinstein’s ambition was modest. He didn’t plan to compete with big operators in New York, Los Angeles or Paris. He just wanted his sunny little spot four blocks from Lake Harriet to be as well-known as the hardware store across the street.

“If we can be to art what Guse is to hardware, we’ll be successful,” he said back in 1996.

His namesake gallery has more than trumped the neighborhood shop. Weinstein has shown and sold photos by 20th-century luminaries — Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gordon Parks, Man Ray, August Sander, W. Eugene Smith — and such celebrities as dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and musician David Byrne.

An international clientele flocks to the gallery’s booth at high-end photo fairs in New York and Paris, and out-of-towners make pilgrimages to the gallery.

“It’s not a very imposing place compared to most galleries, but very interesting, and he represents some very important photographers,” said Elliott Erwitt, a legendary New York-based photographer who sought out Weinstein while on assignment in Minneapolis.

“You don’t expect to see that quality of work outside New York, Chicago or L.A., but there he was. He didn’t know me from Adam, and I didn’t know him. So we went around the corner and had some sandwiches and a chat. He’s a big chatter.”

Their casual encounter led to Erwitt’s 2010 show at the gallery and Weinstein’s recent gift of an Erwitt photo to the Minneapolis museum. That picture is vintage Erwitt, an amusing shot of a dog jumping straight up beside its trenched-coated owner standing flat-footed on a Paris street.

“It’s just a great image,” Weinstein said in the show’s catalog. “It makes you warm and fuzzy and smile and be happy. What more should a photograph do?”

Weinstein’s gift photos are wide-ranging, from a huge 1939 gathering of Detroit union workers, to a homeless L.A. family living in its beat-up car, to boxers Sugar Ray Robinson and Carl “Bobo” Olson slugging it out in the 1950s. He’s given a classic Edward Weston nude, a Garry Winogrand picture of Jackie Robinson and an Ansel Adams image of a girl in her ruffled graduation dress leaning against a tree.

“Martin’s contributions have added a certain amount of personality and fun to the collection,” said photography curator David Little, who organized the new exhibit. “I tried to pick the most interesting and best work, but also to reflect his eclectic tastes.”

From Brooklyn to Minneapolis

Weinstein, 72, loves pictures of New York City, especially Brooklyn, where he grew up in a politically liberal family “of very limited means.” He remembers watching boxing matches on TV with his dad.

He worked his way through college and Brooklyn Law School in sundry union jobs, and developed a taste for blues, jazz and popular musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Little Richard, both pictured among his gifts to the institute.

That diversity reflects Weinstein’s concept of photography.

“I honestly believe it is really the populist medium, and I am a populist,” he said. “I don’t know of another medium where an image can reach out and grab you so directly; you don’t need art-speak to interpret it for you.”

Weinstein’s involvement with the museum started in the 1980s. He and his wife, Lora, had settled in Minneapolis in 1971 when he went to work for U.S. District Judge Miles Lord. The following year he joined the firm Maslon, Edelman, Borman and Brand, where he handled antitrust cases and eventually rose to be a managing partner.

Even as his career took off and his family expanded to include a son, Max, and daughter, Molly, he found time to visit museums and began to collect photography.

A San Francisco photo dealer suggested he look up Ted Hartwell, the MIA’s photography curator at the time. When he wandered into the curator’s office a few months later, they formed an instantaneous bond that lasted until Hartwell’s death in 2007. Weinstein often gave the museum photos the department wanted and, after he joined the institute’s board, was a persuasive champion for the medium.

“Ted and I advocated for the acceptance of photography as a fine art,” Weinstein said. “That is something I fought for very strongly early on. At the time I started collecting, there were very few photography galleries, and contemporary collectors bought very little photography. Now, of course, photography is the thing for museums to collect. That’s a battle I’ve waged for 35, 40 years.”

Setting high standards

Besides encouraging photo collectors, Weinstein Gallery offers viewing opportunities unavailable elsewhere in the community.

“Over the years I’ve brought many classes to his gallery,” said David Goldes, photography professor at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “I’m forever showing photographs as projections in a darkened room, but that’s no comparison to seeing the actual images. He’s made a concerted effort to bring in historically based photographers — Erwitt, Mapplethorpe, Sander — whose work would be difficult to see otherwise.”

Weinstein’s standards have been “very, very inspiring,” said Orin Rutchick, founding director of the Mpls Photo Center, a professional education and exhibition site in north Minneapolis. “He’s raised the level of photography so that it’s in the realm of fine arts. You can go to any gallery and see work, but when you go to one of his shows, you see history — either history that has been made or will be made by a young photographer he’s recognized.”

Minneapolis photographer Alec Soth has relied on Weinstein’s advice throughout a meteoric career that, over the past 15 years, has included shows and sales throughout the United States, Europe and South America.

Weinstein “was not infatuated with my work originally,” Soth recalled recently, and his critiques “can be brutally honest, which is so necessary.” But after Soth’s career took off, Weinstein provided invaluable advice about the “mechanics of the art world,” including negotiations with Larry Gagosian, the world’s most powerful art dealer, with whom Soth showed for several years.

“He has a giant personality, but he will drop any sale to play with a child,” Soth said. “He loves selling, but he doesn’t love money. He loves art, really loves it, but he loves sharing it more.”

Besides the MIA, institutions that have benefited from Weinstein’s largesse include the Weisman Art Museum, Walker Art Center and Duluth’s Tweed Museum of Art.

“To me, that’s what it’s all about: giving things, sharing things,” he said. “I’ve never jeopardized my family’s well-being for photography, but Lora [his wife] has the opinion that all good art should eventually end up in the public domain rather than in the possession of an individual. As much as I collect — and I am an obsessive collector — if art is to have significance, it must be in the public domain.”