It was only Bruce Karstadt's second day as president of the American Swedish Institute when a colleague told him they needed to "go meet the nuts."
"I was puzzled," Karstadt said, but he smiled and made his way down to the basement of ASI's Minneapolis home. There, he found 50 enthusiastic volunteers from an operation called Tomte — the Swedish name for a mythological creature that resembles a garden gnome — that sold packaged nuts to help the institute keep its doors open.
That experience gave him a peek into the homespun nature of the organization founded in 1929 by Swedish-born newspaper publisher Swan Turnblad — and the energy that might transform it.
On Wednesday, after more than 31 years at the helm, Karstadt announced that he will retire early next year.
During his tenure, he grew the institute's audience of diehard Swedes into a broader, more diverse community. A key moment was a 2012 expansion that brought a new, 34,000-square-foot building, the Nelson Cultural Center, and its Nordic-inspired Fika Café.
Visitors jumped from 50,000 people to 165,000 in the building's first year, according to ASI figures.
Now, Karstadt has launched a multiyear plan to renovate ASI's original home next door, the Park Avenue mansion and carriage house that Turnblad built between 1904 and 1908.
"We're in a really very good position for this transition to happen," he said. "Transitions from one leader to the next need to happen with careful, deliberate planning and not because of an emergency."
Not that Karstadt is itching to move on.
"I'm still enjoying my work," he said. But he recently turned 70, "so there's a marker that sort of lingers in the background."
The executive-search firm of Isaacson, Miller will tackle the challenge of replacing a man who has deep ties not only locally but abroad, too.
Christiana Stolpestad, ASI's director of engagement, came to the museum as a child and remembers it as a magical place. She's worked with Karstadt since 2010.
"He's got a deep dedication to community both here and in Sweden, and I think people just sense that authentic commitment," she said.
She remembers a walk in Stockholm about five years ago, during a group tour to Sweden that included Karstadt.
Suddenly she heard someone yell, "Hey, Bruce!" It was Sweden's ambassador to the United States, who happened to be cycling by. For Stolpestad, the incident "spoke to Bruce's personality — he's the guy that everyone knows. … Everyone feels that sense of hospitality from him."
That includes Parents in Community Action, an organization that serves 2,500 low-income children and families in Hennepin County. One of its centers is a block from ASI.
"Our relationship with the Swedish Institute is not a likely one that you would expect," said PICA's deputy director, Candee Melin.
The two organizations began partnering a decade ago, when ASI offered PICA kids access to its space for graduation parties. Over time it has evolved to summer gardening, free passes to the museum and critical supplies for families after the onset of COVID and the unrest following George Floyd's murder.
"The staff has always welcomed us with open arms, and that was really under his leadership," Melin said.
The kid from 'Little Sweden USA'
Karstadt considers Minneapolis his home, but he grew up in Lindsborg, Kan., a town founded by Swedish immigrants in 1869 that calls itself "Little Sweden USA." His Swedish-born great-grandmother immigrated there in the late 1800s.
It was there that Karstadt's curiosity for all things Swedish began. An attorney by trade, he worked in that field for a few years before switching to higher education. In 1988, he visited Minneapolis to attend a festival marking the 350th anniversary of Swedes coming to America. Soon thereafter, ASI began searching for a new boss, and a friend suggested Karstadt. The rest is history.
Looking back on his time at the institute, Karstadt feels that the addition of the Nelson Cultural Center was a high-water mark.
"It allowed us to achieve some things that we've long been striving for, which was to create campus facilities that would welcome a much broader audience as well as serve our long-standing traditional audience of Minnesotan Scandinavians and Swedes particularly," he said.
The initial phase of ASI's $22 million plan to renovate its historic mansion began this month, with plans to wrap in December. It includes rebuilding a terrace wall and the mansion's weather-damaged limestone veranda, as well as repairing metal structures in the mansion's historic solarium. Phase two will begin when funding is secured.