The Minnesota Museum of American Art plans to partially reopen in October in downtown St. Paul after being closed for three years.

Its new quarters will be a small suite of galleries on the street level of the historic Pioneer-Endicott building at 141 E. 4th St. Museum officials are negotiating to lease the space from a St. Paul developer who bought the structure in 2011.

"The writing is on the wall," said museum director Kristin Makholm. "I don't think we can sustain a museum without walls. People want a place they can go to see the collection."

Plans call for the museum to be an anchor tenant in the building, which developer Rich Pakonen intends to convert into high-end residences. He declined to describe his project in detail before closing on its financing, but he confirmed his enthusiasm about the museum.

"Having [the museum] on the first floor of an apartment building would be perfect," Pakonen said. "It's a fantastic thing that adds a lot of vitality."

The museum's new quarters are expected to be 3,700 square feet of space on which Pakonen will do basic renovation, Makholm said. The museum will add lights and movable walls and rework the bathrooms. She said the space will enable the museum to "connect with the community, do exhibitions of local artists, hold design charettes and conversations" with art lovers and supporters.

At first the new galleries will be open only limited hours, possibly Thursday and Friday evenings and on weekends.

Ultimately, however, the museum hopes to make the Pioneer-Endicott building its permanent home. By fall 2015 it intends to occupy 45,000 square feet of space there, including galleries for its collection and temporary exhibits, classrooms, offices and storage areas.

"We're trying to be very prudent about money," Makholm said. "If we aren't making our goals we can pull down the size; we have the flexibility to do that and will review as we go."

The museum has been shuttered since January 2009, when it closed its rented galleries in a former parking garage in the Ramsey County Government Center on Kellogg Boulevard. At that time it had been without a director for six months following the resignation of Bruce Lilly after 11 years of steady downsizing and growing debt.

Makholm was hired in June 2009 with a mandate to salvage the nearly bankrupt organization. An enthusiastic fundraiser and energetic scholar, she has since organized eight exhibits drawn from the museum's 4,000-piece collection and presented them at colleges and galleries around the state. She published a book of collection "treasures" to accompany a show that has traveled to St. Peter, Northfield, Duluth and Moorhead and will close at the University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum in February.

She has also beefed up the staff, which now includes two full- and two part-time employees besides herself. By summer's end she intends to add a "curator of engagement" to program the new site.

Makholm said she has balanced the museum's budget each year. The $560,000 budget for fiscal 2012, which ends June 30, also will balance, she said, thanks mainly to contributions from individuals, corporate and foundation grants, and state Legacy funds.

The museum's 2013 budget is projected to rise to $1.2 million, including $460,000 to aid the move.

"I really believe we're going to create a museum of the people, by the people and for the people," Makholm said.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431