Entering the Minneapolis Institute of Art is like stepping into a gigantic library, one with huge doors and packed with rarities from around the world. It needs regular dusting off and upkeep, as it should, since this is an encyclopedic museum with strong global collections.

That's why Kaywin Feldman launched a contemporary art department in 2008, soon after she took over as director.

"We stopped collecting contemporary art with any great focus in 1960," Feldman said. "Time had marched on and our collections were really frozen in time, which was particularly disturbing in our global collections. China and Japan ended in 1900. Africa didn't include any contemporary art — you can't tell the story of the art of the world without addressing what is happening, globally, right now."

She hired Elizabeth Armstrong as the museum's first contemporary art curator, a job that demands something of a balancing act between curiosity and necessity, the past and the present.

Armstrong imagined being the museum's contemporary curator for the past 50 years, and asked herself what she would have acquired. Out of the question came "Until Now: Collecting the New," an exhibition of 113 objects, 17 of which the museum ended up acquiring, including works by Mona Hatoum, Yasumasa Morimura, Thomas Struth, Ghada Amer, Petah Coyne and Bill Viola.

That was something of a "phase one" for the program. Phase two started with the hiring last spring of the department's second-ever curator, Gabe Ritter. He started working within a month of another hire, photography/new media curator Yasufumi Nakamori.

The two have teamed with Nicole Soukup, the new assistant curator of contemporary art, to reinvigorate the museum's approach, focusing on more "artist-driven" programming, with living artists responding directly to the museum's rich collection.

You can see what that looks like in three second-floor galleries reinstalled by Dave Muller, an artist whom Ritter met in Los Angeles, where he grew up and went to graduate school. Muller has covered the walls with mural-esque visions surrounding an assortment of images and objects selected from the collection.

On one wall, a rabid-looking white tooth with red gloves lunges at viewers. Elsewhere, signage from a no-longer-in-existence L.A. dentist juts into sky-blue sky, juxtaposed with Minneapolis artist Andy DuCett's pencil/ink/collage "Thumbs up (we must be living right)," a multifaceted view of the Twin Cities.

What excites Ritter is "art that challenges our preconceived notions of what art is — what it should and can be — and how, in turn, this might challenge us to rethink art's relationship to the world around us and everyday life. For me, art cannot exist in a bubble, and instead needs to remain open to, and in dialogue with, the realities of daily life in order to critique it and imagine its alternatives."

This is a tall order for a young department. It's also a challenge for contemporary art curators to make their way in a museum whose collection is predominantly rooted in the past. Or, phrased another way, "it's complicated." But the three leaders have infused energy into a program that was treading water for a couple of years after Armstrong left in 2014 to head the Palm Springs Art Museum in California.

"It was Liz's task to kind of give space for where contemporary fits in an encyclopedic museum," Soukup said. "Now Gabe is coming in and saying: 'Let's look at underrepresented artists. Let's look at the collection in a new light. What does "contemporary" mean?' "

To Feldman, that word represents "really the continuity of the collection, moving forward some of the media and themes and regions that we already have strength in across our historic collections. One of the reasons we were so excited to have Gabe join us is his expertise in contemporary Asian art, particularly Japan and China."

Broadening the spectrum

Ritter's route to Minneapolis was a bit circuitous and lined with a few crossover coincidences.

As assistant contemporary curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, he worked with Walker Art Center staff on the 2015 exhibition "International Pop," which opened here and traveled to Dallas. This brought him to the Twin Cities several times. On his last trip, he had time to kill, so he decided to check out what else was happening around the Twin Cities.

"Completely by chance I came to Mia," the museum's nickname, Ritter said, "with no inkling of anything."

Underrepresented artists — women, people of color, LGBTQ-identifying people — are central to the new team's mission. This month Ritter is bringing in New York-based artist Aliza Nisenbaum, who will live and work in near south Minneapolis for three months, then present a solo show in September.

Nisenbaum has been working with Cuban artist Tania Bruguera on the Immigrant Movement International project, which serves to empower immigrants on personal and political levels. She paints portraits of the people involved. In Minneapolis, Nisenbaum will do something similar, with a goal of creating three large-scale, oil-on-canvas group portraits.

"These portraits will be representative of the individuals and community groups that Aliza engages with, who are underrepresented or historically underserved by art institutions such as ours," Ritter said. "We will then organize an exhibition of Aliza's work — her first museum solo show — that will serve as a community platform to bring Mia's audience and those living in the surrounding communities closer together."

Coincidentally, Nisenbaum and someone photo curator Nakamori is working with — Vietnamese-American artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen — both have work in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, which highlights important up-and-coming talents.

"I pick artists who are pushing boundaries between photography and new media that respond to current social, economic and political issues," said Nakamori, who this fall will present the U.S. premiere of "August," a film by Berlin video artist Omer Fast. "Hopefully the artists also respond to part of our vast collection, whether it is photo or painting or a picture."

Regional visions

Ritter plans to expand the museum's reach through various exhibits and acquisitions. This, of course, includes highlighting artists who live and work in the Upper Midwest.

But really, that's where Soukup comes in. She coordinates the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), which for four decades has given regional talents a place to present ambitious work.

Soukup grew up in Sleepy Eye, Minn. After receiving a B.A. in art history from the University of Minnesota, she left the North for a more tropical landscape, earning an M.A. in contemporary art from the University of Florida.

Her master's work led her toward what she's thinking about now. "What does it mean to curate artists and projects that involve social practice?" she said. "How do we do so authentically — not just top-down, one-and-done?"

Visitors can expect her to be on the lookout for artists who are engaged with socioeconomic and political issues. On July 20, she'll open a show of work by Joe Sinness, whose works focus on showings of sexual desires, and subject matter that ranges from dating apps such as Grindr and Scruff to vintage male physique mags and Al Pacino's 1980 "Cruising" film. The desired outcome is a queer utopian space where desire is honored and sexualized individuals are treated tenderly and lovingly rather than as objects.

Next March, Soukup will open an exhibit by Essma Imady, who uses her experience as a Syrian refugee living in the United States to reflect on the ways gender is shaped and passed on to children.

Soukup, who was MAEP's interim coordinator the past two years, has reintroduced feedback and studio visits to the program; previously, artists would apply and receive no feedback.

"If an artist asks, I will drive to Warroad or Luverne to meet with someone and learn about their practice," Soukup said.

612-673-4438 • @aliciaeler