Herman Milligan’s home in southwest Minneapolis is filled to the brim with local and international art — works that he and his wife, Connie Osterbaan-Milligan, have acquired at galleries and auctions and on their travels around the world.
Milligan’s eyes light up when he talks about the pieces — traditional masks, contemporary paintings, photographs, sculpture, street art, mixed media and art books — each with a story of where he or his wife found it, or how they met the artist.
“I just buy whatever I want, and she gets what she wants,” Milligan said.
It’s a joy from which many an artist has benefited. Milligan is a familiar face at art openings, performances, lectures, readings, museum parties and a whole host of arts-related events in the Twin Cities. A consummate board member and adviser to arts organizations, Milligan has shown passion, dedication and expertise in strengthening and enriching artists and communities.
“He’s an enthusiastic and curious supporter and collector,” said Carolyn Payne, executive director of Soo Visual Arts Center, where Milligan serves on the advisory board. “He’s always there, always wanting to meet the artists and always curious about the art.”
SooVAC is one of nearly a dozen arts organizations where Milligan currently serves as an adviser. He also chairs the board of the Givens Foundation for African American Literature. He previously chaired Juxtaposition Arts, where he’s still on the board, and is on the board at Artspace Projects, Art to Change the World, and the Center for Cuban Studies, the latter of which is based in New York.
That’s not to mention the work he does as a consultant with the Fulton Group, which offers market research and organizational support for nonprofits. Current projects include raising $5.5 million for public art at light-rail stations along the Southwest Light Rail project, and Art4Good, which raises money for nonprofits while also paying artists for their work.
“It’s really a 360-degree integration of how I live and how I operate,” Milligan said. With a Ph.D. in sociology, a 25-year corporate career and a background as a saxophonist and photographer, Milligan has always seen arts as a vehicle for social betterment.
“When you join a board, you should be joining a board to really have some impact,” he said. “Not just because it’s good conversation at a meeting or a cocktail party, or because so-and-so belongs to this board I want to be on this board because I want to belong to this social set.”
Art and society
That “360-degree” thinking goes all the way back to Milligan’s days at the University of Wisconsin. In 1969, the university was embroiled in the Black Strike, a student movement that demanded a black studies department, recruitment of black faculty and additional black students.
“We had 13 demands,” Milligan said. “One demand was to hire a black American musician to the school of music.” In 1970, the university brought in pioneering free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor as an artist in residence. Milligan played for Taylor’s Black Music Ensemble, and petitioned the university to make the position permanently funded, which it has been since 1972.
Later at the University of Minnesota, where Milligan was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in sociology, he curated two photography exhibits as the student director for the Midwest Sociological Society. “I was integrating and curating, at least from the visual side, how the arts are really studying and looking at society,” Milligan said.
Milligan’s interest in the intersections between art and social good continued during his long career at Norwest and later Wells Fargo. His job as an analyst and market researcher used his sociology training, while his volunteer work directly addressed his desire for change. From a Twin Cities task force on gangs to the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights, Milligan found time for his community throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
It was through Wells Fargo that he got connected with the Management Assistance Project, a local group tasked with recruiting nonprofit board members. They came to Milligan with a program to support the American Indian community when Hiawatha Avenue was expanded in the 1990s. “I helped them figure out, how do you keep community when you have this human-made barrier that goes right through [it]?” Milligan said.
Milligan had served on the Walker Art Center’s Community Advisory Committee, but starting in 1999, when Minneapolis publisher Milkweed Editions first knocked on his door, he really dove into the arts nonprofit world. He was involved with Milkweed as it co-created Open Book on Washington Avenue with the Loft and Minnesota Book Arts, and was instrumental in coming up with a plan for the Soap Factory as a wave of development exploded around the arts space. He has also found time to serve on National Endowment for the Arts panels, write papers on real estate and the arts, curate exhibitions, host events and, in general, use his considerable access and connections for the benefit of artists and organizations he supports.
According to Kelley Lindquist, president of the Minneapolis-based developer Artspace Projects, Milligan will often stop a board meeting to comment on what a particular action will mean to a community in which the organization is working, or offer insights about a local person or group Artspace should connect.
“He has a really good heart,” Lindquist said. “He is a guide for us at Artspace to make sure the buildings and programs we develop are in partnership with the community and are owned by the community more than they are owned by Artspace.”
The hard questions
Artspace is now partnering with Juxtaposition Arts on a development slated for north Minneapolis. Juxtaposition, which is in the midst of a capital campaign to raise funds for its own building renovation and expansion, will program a gallery slated for Artspace’s new artist-housing development.
“As we started to talk about a project in north Minneapolis, it was Herman who raised his hand to speak,” Lindquist said. “He said, ‘I hope that you are talking with Juxtaposition.’ ” Milligan was chairman of Juxtaposition at the time, and encouraged Lindquist to speak with its directors. “We had coffee within a couple of days,” Lindquist recalled. “I listened to Herman because he’s always right.”
DeAnna Cummings, the CEO of Juxtaposition, said she got to know Milligan at art openings and artist talks at big venues such as the Walker and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, as well as smaller venues like the former Bindery Projects and Public Functionary.
“I would say Herman is sort of like the quintessential professional board member,” Cummings said. “To have professional experience around best practices for the board of directors and organizing committees and putting processes in place — those sorts of things have been super important for us under Herman’s leadership.”
Cummings said that while Milligan acts as an ally and advocate, he isn’t just a yes man. “He’s going to ask the hard questions, push back and try to poke holes — but do it from a real place from support and respect,” she said.
“I always say, ‘I’m not on the board to be your friend,’— they don’t like to hear that,” Milligan said, smiling. “I say it in a nice way.”
Even if he can be tough sometimes, it comes from a place of someone deeply invested in the community.
“Herman never loses sight of what matters most in what we do as arts organizations, and that is to create amazing, surprising, shocking, provocative art,” Cummings said.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based arts writer.