The Museum of Russian Art has a new executive director, and it's a homecoming of sorts.

Mark Meister, 65, was the founding director of the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul, opening it in 1981 and running it until he left the Twin Cities in 1986. He currently runs the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation in Dayton, Ohio.

A University of Minnesota graduate, he will be the fifth director in the Russian museum's 17-year history, following the unexpected departure last summer of Vladimir von Tsurikov.

“The museum has been around since 2002, and I believe it’s ready for the next step,” said board chair Christine Podas Larson, former executive director of Public Art St. Paul, who studied Russian history and theater as an undergraduate. “Mark has a highly successful track record of leading capital endowment campaigns for other institutions, and a real savviness of what a museum is and how it operates in the contemporary context.”

Meister has a long track record of running museums.

“I felt the Museum of Russian Art was a perfect match for my background and experience, having been director of three other art museums as well as museums of natural history, science and a childrens museum,” he said. “I also have a clear path of working with new or relatively new organizations to move them forward in their development.”

Before his present job, he spent 18 years as president of the Dayton Society of Natural History, where he grew the audiences to more than 200,000 visitors annually. He also oversaw a budget of $4.8 million and raised more than $30 million for programs, oversaw renovation of the planetarium, and nearly doubled the museum’s endowment.

The Museum of Russian Art is a far smaller institution, with an annual budget of $1.1 million and a staff of 12. Meister already has big plans for his first six months, including starting an endowment and wrapping up the museum’s mortgage. He’s interested in putting together an educational program focused on reading literacy for third graders relating to Russian art and culture.

Though he does not speak Russian, Meister is an Ashkenazi Jew, and both sets of his grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Russia before World War I. The museum has several people on staff, including curator Masha Zavialova, who speak Russian fluently, so they are not concerned about this linguistic difference. Meister said that when his grandparents “weren’t speaking Yiddish, they were speaking Russian.” So it’s all in the family.

Meister's grandchildren live in the Twin Cities, so he and his wife have been frequent visitors.

They met at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in the mid-1970s. He was there on a National Endowment for the Humanities museology fellowship after completing a graduate program in museum studies/art history program at the U of M. His wife was an intern in the photography department while finishing her MFA. 

Their daughter also attended the university, receiving her Ph.D. in environmental science resource management.  

“My family is thrilled,” he said. “We are exactly where we want to be and I am doing what I want to be doing.”