Time was when museum curators had to stay glued to their desks all through the end-of-year holidays in case an art-collecting patron popped in to drop off a Picasso. Now most museums have acquisition policies that spell out what the institutions want, encourage earlier donations and, incidentally, free the staff for holidays, too.

Highlights of the 2010 acquisitions -- a mix of gifts and purchases -- at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Walker Art Center and the Weisman Art Museum suggest that the policies have enhanced local collections. Pieces range from a Matisse still life and a 500-year-old map of Venice at the institute to a dance video at the Walker and a gigantic ceramic urn called a "dango" at the Weisman.

Nonprofit organizations of all sorts, from hospitals to colleges and orchestras, solicit year-end donations to help balance their books. Gifts of art are more complicated because they can't just be deposited in a museum's bank account.

Nor can museums accept everything that's offered. The art has to be authentic, appropriate, top-quality, in pristine condition and not a duplicate of something already owned. Acquisition policies guide the decisions, which are based on staff recommendations but made by committees of museum board members.

"We really are operating on fewer, better objects," said Matthew Welch, deputy director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "If the curators can't make a case in a strong, dramatic way, it doesn't go through."

Strategic plans at the MIA

The institute developed its first formal acquisition plan two years ago. It requires curators in every department to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of what the museum already owns and to recommend a plan for future acquisitions. Curators know what local collectors own and may donate, so they take that into consideration. Some items are too rare or expensive to buy but might be given by a benefactor. Other important art might be unfashionable at the moment and therefore priced attractively for purchase.

"Some areas, like Sung Dynasty paintings, are very difficult to come by," Welch said. "And certain things are subject to passion. Maybe this isn't a good time to collect Imperial Chinese porcelain, which is outrageously popular among Chinese. So the question is, realistically, what can we do right now given the present market?"

Earlier this year, institute board member Eric Dayton led a campaign that raised $5 million in gifts of cash and international contemporary art, a somewhat controversial collecting area that the museum is using to reanimate and update its traditional collections. That effort brought in 25 post-1980 pieces, including sculpture by Ai Weiwei (Chinese) and Siah Armajani (Minneapolis-based but Iranian-born); photos by Yasumasa Morimura (Japan), Yinka Shonibare (British Nigerian) and Thomas Struth (German); plus videos by American artists Doug Aitken and Jennifer Steinkamp. Recently the museum was also given a major painting by Kehinde Wiley that introduces 21st-century themes to a 17th-century baroque gallery.

Institute board members approved a bounty of art at their December meeting, including purchases of a lustrous 18th-century white marble "Madonna" and a 9-foot-wide map of Venice, plus gifts of a video by Bill Viola, a Thomas Moran watercolor and a Matisse still life.

Three-track focus at Walker

Collection decisions are made in much the same way at the Walker. At roughly three-year intervals, curators develop long-range acquisition plans for the museum's board, outlining the collection's history, recommending goals and highlighting gaps.

"A big part of what we do when we travel is research," said collection curator Betsy Carpenter. "We go to exhibitions, galleries, biennials, fairs and bring back ideas to the curatorial table. Once we have a shared sense of the importance of a particular piece, we go to the director for approval, then to the acquisition committee and the larger board. Things can happen quickly, but it can take years, too."

The Walker has three main focuses for its collecting: major artists it has supported and shown over time; emerging talents, and under-recognized artists that history has passed over.

Among the 54 pieces acquired this year are a six-channel film installation by Tacita Dean, a young British artist whose subject, the late Merce Cunningham, was a favorite Walker dancer for decades. A minimalist 1971 sculpture and several drawings by the previously overlooked Cuban-American artist Carmen Herrera are her first additions to the Walker collection. The center also acquired three paintings by Minneapolis iconoclast Frank Gaard, whose satirical Pop Art is well represented at the Walker.

"It's been a big year for collecting," Carpenter said.

A centerpiece for the Weisman

The Weisman recently closed in order to finish a $14 million expansion that will add several galleries and a studio for "creative collaboration." Scheduled for completion in October, the expansion will showcase a monumental sculpture by Jun Kaneko that was given to the museum just last week. A ceramic jar nearly 7 feet tall and more than 5 feet wide, the sculpture is "a stunning thing that will be the centerpiece of our new ceramics gallery," said Weisman spokesman Christopher James.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431