Katherine Luber, a fifth-generation Texan, is proving to be an enthusiastic Minnesotan.
Since she became director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art in January, she’s been out most nights, exploring.
She checked out the Art Shanty Projects on Lake Harriet. (“I was like, we have to have a shanty next year!”) She saw “The White Card” at Penumbra Theatre. (“which was so pertinent to my life and to everything that we are doing in museums in America now.”) She tasted two versions of the Jucy Lucy, wisely declining to pick a winner. (“I will say that my kids thought they were both great.”)
Luber — who goes by “Katie” — has also adopted what she called Minnesota’s “value mind-set,” pressing pause on a master plan launched in 2017 until she gets a better handle on the costs and consequences.
“I love this about our city,” she began, “that we’re not necessarily a place like Houston,” A Houston museum might raise a billion dollars to redo its campus, she said. “I don’t think that that’s what Minnesota and Minneapolis are all about.”
Luber is still getting to know Mia’s $36 million annual budget, 90,000-plus artworks and staff of 250 — a jump from her previous job at the San Antonio Museum of Art, where she oversaw a $11 million budget, 30,000 works and 82 full-time employees. At this point, she said, “I’m happy to find the bathrooms.”
During a conversation in her office, Luber spoke broadly about making the museum more accessible and intuitive, using its collection in new ways.
She brought up Mia’s current exhibition and its showpiece — an installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei — the personal memories it inspired, the professional questions it asks. That widely shared piece wraps the museum’s neoclassical facade in hundreds of colorful life vests once worn by refugees.
“I look at property rights and human rights as being the two main issues that museums are engaged in today,” she said. Mia must grapple with questions about both. “How do we interpret artworks in a way that’s sensitive to our communities? In a way that the Enlightenment didn’t allow for?”
Luber leaned forward. “It’s hard,” she said. “You know, art is never easy. And these are never going to be the easy conversations. But where else would you want to be?”
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: We’ve talked about how you’re a fifth-generation Texan. But your mom’s side of the family emigrated from Norway and ended up in Minnesota, right?
A: Since I’ve been here, I’ve been looking into this a lot. My grandmother’s grandmother came with her family from Norway. Through Montreal and then down to Wisconsin. Then Minnesota was opened up for settlement, so they moved to Spring Grove [in southeastern Minnesota, the state’s first Norwegian settlement in the state]. Someone told me that the street signs are still in Norwegian and you can hear people still today speaking Norwegian on the street. ... This was never the dominant strand in my family history. I lived in Texas, and the Texas part was very big. My father’s family was very much an old Texas family. But it’s sort of interesting. We’re all these hybrid mutts across this country, and all these different strands of immigration. ...
It’s been really interesting to learn about that part of my own history. And of course to think about myself in terms of the big exhibition that just opened, “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration.”
Q: How so?
A: [For my family], these were voluntary immigrations of people. ... Both the Irish part of my dad’s family and the Norwegians, they were suffering from the potato famine. They were starving. So they were seeking something better. ... I find the exhibition very moving because of that. And I can’t imagine that almost any person in our country would not have that same reflection. You start thinking about your grandparents and your great-great-grandparents. ...
That’s what I love about art ... it always makes me think about my own personal life. Matthew Welch [Mia’s deputy director and chief curator] and I were standing in front of the building looking at the Ai Weiwei, which is called “Safe Passage.” And we were kind of marveling about how it’s so visually provocative and powerful. It takes the great lady of Mia — the white lady of Mia — and makes her sort of brilliant and fluorescent and fresh and new.
Then I start thinking about and reflecting about what I know about art, history and art. And the body is so present in those life vests and the human body, the human form. It’s like these human bodies are surrounding the pillars of the museum. And it’s like protecting the museum, too.
Q: You have an MBA in addition to a doctorate in art history. How did that affect your thinking about the business of art and the business of running a museum?
A: It’s so funny. Just yesterday I was meeting with our media technology group and they asked me the same question.
What’s different is that we have different sources of revenue. In the museum world, we have an endowment from people who have donated money to keep the museum going. So it’s not like we have to have a revenue stream that is meeting our expenses every day. ... Earned income is about 11 percent of our total budget. But we still have to stay viable. So in that sense, it’s not at all different.
I have a really good friend, a CFO at a nonprofit in San Antonio, and she would talk about “no margin, no mission.” If you’re not breaking even, then you cannot execute your mission. ... Coming here, the business of the museum is so well run. It’s such a pleasure to be able to come in and think about what our mission is — because I’m not having to worry so much about the margin.
Q: Tell us about the master plan, which hasn’t been discussed publicly. Mia’s board chairman mentioned the campus’ daunting challenges, including crumbling parking infrastructure and a huge lack of storage. How will the master plan address these?
A: Gosh, I don’t know yet.
I went to London and I met David Chipperfield [whose architectural firm was hired to draft the plan] and I had a deep dive for two days with them about it all. So I’m still learning about his thoughts and getting my head around what we need to do with the community here. My board has been so fabulous because they’ve said, “Katie, you come up to speed and then we’ll revisit. ... ”
I really have to feel very comfortable with what direction the museum needs to go in the next few years. We’re talking about: Are cars going to be necessary in 10 years? I mean, I think they are. But these are questions that I can’t pretend aren’t out there in the universe.
And we know that in the next 25 years, with the baby boomers, there will be the biggest transfer of art and wealth in the history of our country. So I want to understand what our needs are and what the solutions might be. ... Certainly the master plan is a huge road map and guide for me. ... But I’m still thinking about it.
Q: The way it was presented, it was as if there was something that was going to be happening.
A: You must remember a master plan is a vision. It is not a building project. ...
There are definitely issues that we need to address. What I don’t know is, do I have to address the [current parking] ramp in the next two years or in the next 10 years? ... There’s also a desire for more parking to take some of the parking off the streets. So how do we achieve that? What is our storage issue, really? Are there other solutions? Do we have to build a new building?
I’m trying to figure out how I can match the needs of Mia with the community needs and with the value mind-set.
Q: What do you think about Mia’s exhibitions? How many are homegrown versus brought in? And how might that change over your tenure?
A: I am a huge fan of homegrown exhibitions. “Hearts of Our People” [the 2019 exhibit of Native women’s art] — what an incredible expression of curatorial excellence [and] engagement with the community. As soon as it was announced that I was going to be the new director at Mia, my phone was ringing off the hook. Every museum in America asked me: “Could we get ‘Hearts of Our People’?” I was like, “No, it’s booked. You should’ve paid attention sooner.”
Our curators are just brilliant and talented. And I am excited to see how they can bring more homegrown thinking to Minneapolis using our own collections as a starting point. I love that. In San Antonio, I really moved us almost entirely toward a self-generated slate of exhibitions.
Every institution occasionally shares things and occasionally takes things because there are great opportunities for us. “Art and Migration” is one of those. Because it is so powerful for today and for our community, it was kind of a no-brainer.
Q: That show is striking partly because it involves this encyclopedic museum rethinking its exterior and removing a beloved piece from its interior (the Roman marble “Doryphoros”).
A: We serve people and we serve art. We serve people by serving art. Wrapping the facade of Mia in the heartbreak and despair of migrants displaced from Syria ... is a strong signal that this museum is a place of safe passage and we’re a place where you can come in and think about these things.
Our country is so divided right now. Bernie and Trump are shouting at each other across the great middle of the rest of us. I find it so sad that, you know, that there aren’t that many places that we can have conversations. And I see the museum as one of those places.
Those conversations aren’t easy. Are they painless? God, no. But it’s our job to make the space available for them.