Hearing the revelers crow, you'd think a new day had dawned with the opening Saturday night of the Minnesota Museum of American Art's new Project Space in downtown St. Paul.

And perhaps it has. With its white walls, pale floors and big windows overlooking a soon-to-be inaugurated light-rail line through the capital city, the Project Space has a come-hither appeal that had drivers waving as they passed. Colorful paintings by Minnesota artists line the walls and, on opening night, a jazz combo played as about 300 arts patrons marveled that the museum, dark for the past four years, was back in business.

"I am so excited to be here tonight," said Joe Spencer, St. Paul's arts liaison, welcoming the crowd on behalf of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who was at a conference on the East Coast. "Rest assured that this is a project, a place and an institution that is very important to Mayor Coleman."

The museum's new site on the ground floor of the historic Pioneer-Endicott building is still a "work in progress," said director Kristin Makholm. It will be open just two more nights in December (Dec. 7 and 14) but starting in January it will be open 20 hours a week.

The MMAA has a two-year lease during which it will mount small exhibitions and stage events in the 3,500-square-foot space. Simultaneously it will figure out whether the space meets its needs and try to raise enough money to consolidate its operations and expand its four-person staff. The museum's offices are several blocks away, and its 4,000-piece collection of paintings, sculpture and crafts is stored at a third location.

"If we can make it our permanent home, that would show stability and would help us in building audiences and support," said Makholm. People who are drawn to downtown living are likely to appreciate the museum's programs, she said, and "the symbolic embeddedness in the urban fabric is really part of who we are."

Historic challenges

Despite its appeal as a St. Paul icon, the Pioneer-Endicott building poses challenges. The complex consists of two 19th-century buildings that were linked in the 1940s. The museum is in the earliest of the two, the 1889 Pioneer building. The L-shaped Endicott building, which wraps around the Pioneer, was designed in 1890 by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the State Capitol.

Veteran St. Paul developer Rich Pakonen bought the complex in 2011 for $1.1 million after it sat vacant for several years. He plans to convert it into 234 units of rental apartments, a program expected to cost about $46 million and to be finished sometime next year.

"We're really excited about having the museum as an amenity for the residents," said Mike Zipko, a spokesman for Pakonen. "How many people can say they live in a building designed by Cass Gilbert that has a museum on the first floor? Art is so much a part of nearby Lowertown; it's just a great fit."

Because the buildings are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, their renovation must meet strict -- and inevitably expensive -- preservation standards. The museum's temporary galleries, for example, have faux wood floors from Ikea that were "floated" over the original tiles because restoring the tiles would have been too costly. The big windows are inviting but also let in sunlight that would damage and fade drawings, textiles and other delicate art. Doors opening directly onto the street pose security risks and make it difficult to control temperature and humidity. Since the building is still being renovated, visitors have to dodge barricades and duck under scaffolding to reach the front door.

Problems overcome

Still, considering what the museum has gone through in the past four years, such problems seem trivial to Makholm.

When she took the helm in July 2009, the museum was virtually bankrupt and had been closed about 18 months. Its collection was in storage and she was the only staff member. With a doctorate in art history from the University of Minnesota, she had strong curatorial experience, including work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and museums in St. Louis and Milwaukee, as well as Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She ran the exhibition and gallery program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for five years before decamping to the MMAA.

"I knew there was a collection with depth, strength and importance that needed to be seen," she told the opening-night crowd. And so, she told herself, "Darn it, I'm going to try."

Over the past 3 1/2 years, she has produced a catalog of collection highlights, organized at least 10 shows that have traveled to colleges and museums statewide, hired new staff members, helped expand the board of directors, solicited gifts for the collection and now launched the temporary exhibition site. Future programs include collaborations with the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and local artists.

"This is fantastic," said Minneapolis ceramicist Maren Kloppmann, about the new spaces and an artist-involvement program that produced the opening show, "Painting the Place Between." Organized by the museum's curator of engagement, Christina Chang, with artist/filmmaker Kristen Lowe, it features eight recent landscape-inspired abstractions by Minnesota-based artists Betsy Byers, Jil Evans, Holly Swift and Andrew Wykes.

"They really love American art here," said collector Colles Larkin, whose husband, John, has rejoined the MMAA board after years of affiliation with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

"There are some naysayers who think that we as a community can only afford to support the MIA, the Walker and the Weisman," said Minneapolis lawyer John Roth, who recently gave the St. Paul museum about 250 paintings, photos and other work by contemporary Minnesota artists. "But I think if you have a small vision, you'll only have small results. This has the potential to be a much bigger deal."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431