When the Minneapolis Institute of Arts opened a century ago, it was a triumph of civic boosterism, fast-track construction and unprecedented generosity.

Art museums were all the rage then. Like sports stadiums today, they certified a city’s wealth and significance on the national stage. Dubbed “palaces for the people,” they were touted for uplifting the masses by bringing beauty and edifying culture to ordinary people.

New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and even Milwaukee already had museums. Now Minneapolis stepped up.

Designed by the country’s premier architectural firm, McKim, Mead and White of New York City, the new museum was a neoclassical showpiece clad in white Vermont granite with parquet floors and Botticino marble trim. Rising majestically along E. 24th Street, it had been designed and built in less than three years for $500,000, equivalent to about $11.8 million now.

The bulk of those funds were raised at a single dinner at the Minneapolis Club, where 73 of the city’s grandees pledged $350,000 in a 90-minute spree — an outpouring of support “absolutely unparalleled in the history of art museum building in America,” declared the president of the Art Institute of Chicago, who witnessed the euphoria.

Now to celebrate its centennial, the museum plans weekly surprises, most of them free, on site and throughout the Twin Cities. There will be special exhibitions including royal treasures from Vienna, a Leonardo da Vinci manuscript, a trove of French paintings and even an exhibit by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo fame — plus garden parties and birthday cake, of course.

“From the very beginning, the MIA has enjoyed a wonderful partnership with the community, and we want to celebrate that,” said Kaywin Feldman, the museum’s director. “At the heart of our plans is the desire to give a gift back to the community. Of course, we also want to show that at 100, we are still surprising and joyful.”

Art for everyone

At the museum’s debut on Jan. 7, 1915, most of the paintings, tapestries and Asian art were on loan from East Coast museums and collectors. But the public didn’t care who owned the stuff. They just wanted to see it.

The first Saturday, 12,000 visitors packed in. By the end of the first month, 80,000 had come from all walks of life. A newspaper noted approvingly that “comparatively few automobiles were drawn up before the Institute, most of the visitors being of the unpretentious sort who walk or ride streetcars.”

Although its facade has a palatial air, the museum’s common touch is deep-rooted. Even its 1911 charter required it to be open “free of charge” at least three days per week “including Sundays and all legal holidays.”

“That has been the primary focus of the museum, to make art accessible,” said Brian Palmer, a past president of the museum’s board. “I love that idea, because where else would you see the objects you find in museums unless you were tremendously wealthy?”

For Palmer the museum is almost an extension of family. His wife is a descendant of Clinton Morrison, who donated the 10-acre plot on which the museum stands. Their daughter, Hunter Palmer Wright, is the museum’s “venture innovation director,” overseeing such services as the lobby design, shop offerings and food service.

Palmer particularly credits former MIA director Evan Maurer for increasing accessibility by making the museum free at all times, starting in 1989.

Technology — the addition of iPads, interactive kiosks, selfies and social media in the galleries — has opened new connections to the museum’s 600,000 annual visitors.

“The museum is attracting a much wider audience than it did 40 years ago,” said Minneapolis lawyer David Lebedoff, a board member since 1975. “It’s not just schoolchildren, who come in huge numbers. The dedication to art of the highest quality has remained over the years, but the outreach of the museum has greatly expanded.”

Expanding collection

When the museum opened in 1915, it owned a mere 327 paintings, tapestries, sculpture and other objects, including pieces from Africa, China, Japan and Southeast Asia.

Now it has 88,738 objects, with prints and drawings being the largest category at 38,718. The first art by American Indians arrived in 1929, and the photography collection started in the 1960s.

To accommodate all that, the building has grown, too. An auditorium/gallery wing was added in 1927. Japanese architect Kenzo Tange flanked the building with modern wings in a $30 million 1974 expansion that included facilities for the Children’s Theatre Company and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. More galleries were quietly tucked into the back of the building during the 1990s, and in 2006 the museum opened its biggest addition to date, the $50 million Target wing designed by Michael Graves.

The MIA’s collection, like that of most museums, has grown primarily at the whim of donors who bequeathed important collections. The museum has a modest acquisition fund, but major gifts generally require private funds.

Fortunately, Twin Cities collectors had diverse interests and deep pockets.

The year after the museum opened, Minneapolis newspaper publisher Herschel Jones gave it more than 5,300 works on paper — woodcuts, lithographs and engravings including masterpieces by Albrecht Dürer. In 1950 Alfred Pillsbury bequeathed a world-class collection of Chinese jades, tomb figurines, porcelain and bronze vessels.

In 1932 James Ford Bell started donating early American silver, culminating 30 years later with a rare complete tea service made by American patriot Paul Revere. And in 1973 former museum president Richard Gale left the institute one of the world’s finest collections of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints and paintings.

Most recently the family of the late Myron Kunin, a longtime benefactor of the museum, lent it more than 550 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and photos, with the hope it will become a permanent part of the MIA. One of the most important hoards of American modernist art in private hands, it would fill a huge void at the museum, which just opened a year-long exhibit drawn from those works.

“Where we have great depth, it’s usually because of the generosity of a donor who had a specific interest, and that’s true of all museums,” said Matthew Welch, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator.

Core values

Chief among the donors is Bruce Dayton, who has been on the museum’s board for 72 years.

Dayton, 96, joined in 1942 when he was fresh out of college and selling shirts in the family’s eponymous downtown Minneapolis store. He soon got a call from an older trustee who informed him that, since the entire executive committee was going to be out of town all winter, they had elected him assistant treasurer “so you can sign checks.”

Dayton has given more than $70 million and 2,000 works of art, ranging from an American Indian painted hide to French impressionist paintings and whole galleries of Chinese furniture and artifacts.

In 2005 his grandson Eric Dayton, then 25, joined the museum’s board, too. He signed on, he said, because he loves the place and felt honored by the opportunity, and it also “had to do with my grandpa — to get to spend time with him.

“He really feels a stewardship for this city and this community,” Eric said. “And the MIA is one of the ways he contributes to making it a better city and leaving it a better city when he is gone. It’s a way to make sure that art isn’t just available to the wealthy in their homes, but available to everyone.”

The museum’s first century spanned an era of tremendous change — from women gaining voting rights to moon landings to text messaging. Throughout, the museum’s core principles have held a steady course, said director Feldman. “We have always existed to enrich the community and provide open access to education and art,” she said. “The ways in which we go about delivering on that mission have changed — more technology, more ambitious exhibitions, enhanced education programs, more visitor amenities. But the mission has not changed.”