The Minneapolis Institute of Art is losing its longtime director to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Kaywin Feldman, who a decade ago became the first woman to lead the Minneapolis museum, will be the first female director of the prestigious National Gallery, the institutions announced Tuesday.
As director and president, Feldman, 52, has modernized the massive Mia, launching its first contemporary art department, weaving new technology into its galleries and overseeing exhibitions that broke attendance records and the unwritten rules of what a museum exhibition could be.
During her tenure, attendance doubled — to more than 711,000 in fiscal year 2018. (The record high came in 2017, when 891,000 people visited.)
Feldman’s new post, which she begins in March, lifts her into another echelon: The National Gallery, located on the National Mall, boasts some 5.2 million visitors a year. The National Gallery’s annual operating budget of $168 million, most of it from federal funding, dwarfs Mia’s budget of $35 million. The National Gallery counts some 1,100 employees, while Mia has 440.
“She’s a person of extraordinary talent and courage and vision,” said Nivin MacMillan, chairwoman of Mia’s board of trustees. “It’s only natural for her to move onto another, bigger institution. While we are brokenhearted for the moment, we’re incredibly proud.”
The announcement comes at a time of churn for some of Minnesota’s biggest arts organizations. The Walker Art Center’s new executive director starts in January. The director of the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum is set to retire in 2020 after four decades at the helm. The Minnesota Orchestra, which just welcomed a new CEO, announced last week that its music director, Osmo Vänskä, will step down in 2022.
In an interview, Feldman praised the National Gallery’s “extraordinary” collection and noted its reputation as “the nation’s art museum.”
“What I care most about is the way that art impacts people and people’s lives,” she said. “I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved here, in being able to do that for our community. And of course, moving to Washington just gives that work a bigger platform.”
At Washington’s flagship art museum, Feldman succeeds Earl “Rusty” Powell III, who is retiring after more than 25 years, and inherits challenges.
“There’s just a gobsmacking amount of stuff to do,” said Tyler Green, an author and historian who spent two decades reporting on the art scene in Washington, D.C.
That includes grappling with a lack of gallery and storage space, Green said, a problem worsened by recent acquisitions from the defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art. Those works, including many by women and African Americans, have helped diversify the National Gallery’s collection, but the museum has long prioritized white, male artists, Green said. Its leadership is known for being insular, he said, and disconnected from the field.
Feldman could be seen as an antidote. Thanks in part to her time as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, Feldman’s peers consider her an advocate for museums large and small, Green said.
“She’s certainly known for having opened up Mia’s programming to be more inclusive of a broad history of art,” he said.
During the monthslong search for its next director, the fifth in its 77-year history, the National Gallery weighed dozens of candidates and interviewed seven, said its president, Frederick W. Beinecke. At the Minneapolis Institute of Art and, before that, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Feldman made the institutions “attractive to a broader audience and increased the audience in both places,” Beinecke said. The board and staff in D.C. hope she can do the same there, he said.
“We would like to have the gallery understood, recognized and appreciated by a wider and probably more diverse audience,” Beinecke said.
Mia’s board will meet this week to discuss Feldman’s plans and the search for its next director, MacMillan said. Feldman is the first person to serve as the Nivin and Duncan MacMillan director and president, a title that nods to the foundation’s $8 million gift endowing the position in 2014. Feldman made $1,005,000 in salary and compensation in fiscal year 2017, according to the museum’s most recent tax filing.
“The success she’s had here, I think it reflects well on Mia itself,” Nivin MacMillan said. “There is fertile soil to work with here.”
Feldman came to Minneapolis in 2008, hailed then by the board chairman as “a wunderkind.” She succeeded William Griswold, who left with vacancies at the heads of six departments and few exhibitions on the books. “We had one on view and one in the pipeline,” she said during an interview in her office Monday. “That was it.”
Within the first year, she nabbed a big show, filled vacancies and launched a strategic planning process that led to the creation of the contemporary collection. “For so long, we were sort of defined as ‘Not the Walker,’ ” Feldman said. “Our collection ended and then the Walker started.”
Over her tenure, through two major acquisitions, Feldman and her staff doubled the Japanese collection. In recent years, the museum acquired majors works by women and artists of color, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Ai Weiwei and Kehinde Wiley, known for his official portrait of President Barack Obama.
Though she appreciates working with art from all time periods, Feldman’s training was in Dutch and Flemish 17th-century paintings. “I love being able to do it all,” she said, “but that’s where my greatest comfort is.” The art museum on the National Mall has “a fantastic collection” of those works, including a Rembrandt “Lucretia” similar to the one at Mia. The gallery feels like home in other ways, too.
As a kid, Feldman moved frequently thanks to her father’s career as a Coast Guard captain. A few of her teenage years were spent in D.C., where she had “the most wonderful French teacher who was bound and determined that we would get culture,” she said. “And so once a year, she took us to the National Gallery of Art to show us French paintings.” Feldman’s father, who died a few years back, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
“So the position has personal importance for me,” she said, “his public service and being back in Washington, near my dad.”
Feldman became a museum director at age 28. At an American Alliance of Museums meeting in 2016, Feldman told the story of how, a few years later, she was interviewing at a larger museum in Texas when the board chair told her, “You are far too young and far too female to have a curator ever report to you.” In her speech, she unpacked the reasons why, “among the 17 largest encyclopedic art museums, with budgets over $30 million, there are only two of us,” two female directors.
Interviewing at the National Gallery, Feldman encountered a board that was “really committed to thinking about hiring a woman for the position,” she said.
Weisman Director Lyndel King said that the culture at the National Gallery has been stuffy, hierarchical, “the kind of place where you had to get your suit from the right place to advance.” In contrast, Feldman is collaborative, open to new ideas.
“This is a really big change for them,” King said. “I think she will bring a non-Brooks Brothers approach to the National Gallery. I think she will be a breath of fresh air.”
Staff writer Alicia Eler contributed to this report.