The way Mark Meister sees it, the name of the Museum of Russian Art contains multitudes.
"Russian" just doesn't sum it all up, so the Minneapolis museum's executive director has instituted a new tagline.
"Now it's 'Exploring the art and culture of Muscovite Russia, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, its former republics, and post-Soviet Russia,' " he explained confidently. "We decided to stop there."
But Meister wasn't finished. Moments later, he said the museum also wants to do more exhibitions of contemporary art by Russian émigrés, particularly those who have settled in this region.
In July, Meister became the fifth executive director in TMORA's 17-year history, relocating after nearly two decades in Dayton, Ohio, where he was CEO of the Dayton Society of Natural History, then executive director of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. But his museum career really began in the Twin Cities.
A University of Minnesota graduate, he was founding executive director of the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul, running it from 1981 to 1986. His daughter Kaitlin settled in the Twin Cities after completing a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, and soon grandkids were on the way. Meister and his wife, Carla, began traveling back to the Twin Cities more often; it became clear that this is where they wanted to be.
With a gentle smile and quiet, bookish demeanor, Meister, 65, is a walking Wikipedia page on obscure topics. He'll happily rattle off chunks of information about things like the Khazars — people of Turkic origin who converted to Judaism and lived a millennium ago in what is now Dagestan.
He sat down recently to talk about his return to the place where his love for art history began. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: What attracted you to TMORA?
A: Just about my entire career has been as a museum director, and my degrees are in art history. This is coming back to my roots.
I have also directed new and relatively new organizations. This is a young museum, in this space since 2005 and it opened in 2002 originally. It's an important growth and transition stage, and I am familiar with how to navigate organizations through that and establish a solid base of financial, programming, exhibitions, everything.
Of course, I wanted to be in the Twin Cities — that was the key. I was purposefully looking to relocate here.
Q: How has it been, shifting from a larger institution to one with a staff of 12?
A: I am really enjoying that. The staff here is fantastic and everybody is covering a lot of different territory to make sure we are able to do what we do. I really like being involved in the day-to-day aspects of the operation on the level that is required when you have such a small staff. I've really appreciated seeing what they do.
Managing a larger staff is fine if the institution warrants it, but we don't need it and I don't miss that at all. If you look at my career, you'll see that I have been interested in starting new institutions and growing young institutions. This is what I like to do — I have an entrepreneurial spirit and I just see tremendous potential here.
Q: What types of new community-oriented programming are you thinking about?
A: We applied for a grant to work with an American Indian artist who will reflect upon the full range of interactions between the indigenous Alaskan peoples and the Russians, who controlled what was called Russian Alaska as a colonial possession from 1733 to 1867.
The artist would be researching that period and the interactions between the indigenous people and Alaska and Russian explorers, settlers, clergy, and creating artworks based on that, as well as Ninilchik, a little village in Alaska where some of the indigenous Alaskans still speak an archaic version of Russian.
We should hear about the grant by the end of this year or early in 2020. If we don't get the grant, I will find another way to make this happen.
Q: Your cultural background is Ashkenazi Jew. Do you know where your family emigrated from?
A: I can't pinpoint it, but I would say that it is most likely in Ukraine, near the Ukraine-Russia border. There were a lot of Russian Jews that came over. Their primary language would've been Yiddish, and then when they came to the U.S. English was their secondary language. All four of my grandparents were from that region and they came in the first part of the 20th century before World War I. They were in Russia, not the Soviet Union.
Q: Did you grow up as a Yiddish speaker?
A: I grew up with my grandparents speaking Yiddish to me. My parents were Yiddish speakers but they didn't speak Yiddish to me — that was their secret language. I remember the day when me and my two younger sisters, we looked at my parents and said: "We know what you're saying!" And that's it — after that they stopped speaking Yiddish to us.
A: We are in discussion about offering that in the spring, on Saturday mornings.
Q: Many of the shows at TMORA have been culled from the collection of founders Ray and Susan Johnson. Will that change?
A: Of the four shows right now, only one is from that collection — the Ukrainian traditional dress show, which is from Susan Johnson's collection. As we move forward, we are going to be putting together more shows from the museum's own collection, which is growing. And as the reputation of the museum has broadened, people have offered us shows. I was just on a conference call that dealt with a show about Odessa that we might bring here. For our schedule in the coming years, we do not have anything coming from the founders' collection.
Q: In 2011, the Russian government barred its state-run institutions from lending art to American museums after it became the target of a lawsuit seeking to regain a collection of Jewish books and documents. How is that ongoing freeze affecting TMORA?
A: Russia has not returned the Schneerson Collection [the subject of the suit, filed by the Chabad-Lubavitch sect] and is not planning to return it, as far as I know. A U.S. federal judge instituted a $50,000 fine for every day that collection hasn't been returned. Even though the U.S. government has told the Russian government that works traveling over from Russia will not be problematic, the Russians are fearful that they will be taken and held as collateral against the fine. And so we are at an impasse.
We are fortunate because I think there are more than enough resources to do exhibitions without bringing work over from Russia. We would like to, and it could be possible with photography, because that can be transmitted electronically.
It shouldn't be an issue if we were to do shows with artists from places like Georgia or Moldova, which were formerly part of the U.S.S.R. Part of it relates to expense, as we would have to do special fundraising to bring over exhibitions. Certainly we would be open to that.