PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Before she made her mark as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' first-ever contemporary art curator, "remixing" historical and modern art in eye-popping juxtaposition, Elizabeth Armstrong steeped herself in Southern California cool.
Armstrong had been mentored for 14 years at the Walker by Martin Friedman, then took a job as deputy director for programs and chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art. While there, she wrote a book called "The Birth of Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury," which described the impact of the region's 1950s art and culture, from the jazz of Miles Davis to the spare furniture of Charles and Ray Eames.
In her book, a photograph on page four featured the spectacular Albert Frey house in the San Jacinto Mountains overlooking Palm Springs. Armstrong moved back to Minnesota in 2008 for the groundbreaking job at the MIA, where she curated such hit exhibits as "More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness."
She had no idea at the time that she would end up living in the Frey House featured in her book. It's a temporary home as Armstrong settles into her new job as the executive director of the Palm Springs Art Museum.
On Thursday, Armstrong caught part of a presentation for the city's popular "Modernism Week" on architect Richard Neutra, then stopped her whirlwind introduction to the city to chat about her new job and life.
"People are very warm and accepting here," said Armstrong, "I've been out every night."
It's an interesting time for Armstrong and the museum. A small satellite space has opened a few blocks away that will focus on the city's outstanding architectural tradition, and Armstrong sees it as a way to "connect with the resources of this community to ask questions about architecture."
Some in Minnesota joked that Armstrong was headed for a senior citizen golf village, but Palm Springs has rebounded after a tough recession. Home prices are rising rapidly. There is a growing Uptown Design district that's luring the creative class and a new commercial development with a high end hotel going up a couple of blocks from the museum.
Oh, and younger movie stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio have recently bought homes here (Anne Hathaway is also looking, real estate agents say), causing locals to hope that a new era of celebrity glitz is about to begin. This week, Armstrong watched with amazement as 45,000 visitors came for lectures on architects and double-decker bus tours of Midcentury Modern homes.
"It's a community in flux," said Armstrong. "I want the museum to be a player as the community changes. When Leonardo DiCaprio bought the Dinah Shore house, it was culturally significant."
Armstrong was talking in a quiet niche overlooking a soaring atrium, which she likes to call "the museum's living room." It's clear she wants to make the museum a focal point and a gathering spot. As she looks down on the entry, she's already envisioning a coffee shop or lounge and she's been dreaming of what they could do with sunken gardens and even the rooftop that abuts a soaring mountain.
"I've been on a listening tour," Armstrong said. "It's been really fun talking to artists and architects about the possibilities. I don't want to make it sound like I've got it all figured out."
During Modernism Week, it's impossible to swing a 9 iron without hitting a screen writer or movie set designer. Armstrong hopes to tap that energy and creativity as a way to expand the museum and appeal to a younger audience, something she was successful at doing at the MIA.
"I see the young artistic types and I'd like to pull them in so they could be co-creators," Armstrong said.
"I'm a believer that a museum can be so much more in a community," she said. "I hope to help the museum open up a little bit. One of the biggest differences is that here a significant amount of the audience are tourists."
Armstrong is already talking about how they can exploit that demographic. "I see this museum as a catalyst. I want it to be an oasis," she said. "Physically, the building can be more friendly, more of a hangout."
Maybe it was the stark beauty of the surrounding desert, or the inspiration of her new venue, but Armstrong's dreams of what could be arrived in almost a stream of consciousness. She mentioned how great it would be to have lower rent housing for artists who wanted to come to the area, and then mentioned Kelley Lindquist of Artspace, which has developed affordable housing for artists in Minnesota and across the country.
"Put that in the article," she said conspiratorially. "Maybe he'll read it and come out here. It would fit right in because Midcentury Modern was all about low cost and high style."
Asked what she missed about Minnesota after just five weeks in California, Armstrong mentioned her daughters, her house on Cedar Lake, and "the community of Minneapolis."
Because of Modernism Week tours, Armstrong had to move out of the Frey house for a few days, but was looking forward to getting back to the gorgeous views.
"Dreamy," she said. "It's just dreamy."
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