The Minneapolis Institute of Art named an art expert with an entrepreneurial past Tuesday as its next director and president: Katherine Luber, of the San Antonio Museum of Art.
A fifth-generation Texan, Luber, 58, will become the 12th person — and second woman — to run Mia, one of the country’s leading museums.
“For me it’s an opportunity to fly, in a way, and stretch my wings as leader,” Luber said in an interview. “The breadth of the collections, the importance of the museum to the community … This is an extraordinary opportunity.”
Luber, who has led the San Antonio institution for eight years, possesses not only a Ph.D. in art history but also an MBA and experience launching an organic spice company.
“She brings both the business world and the art curatorial world together in one person, which when we looked at our pool of candidates is pretty unusual,” said David Wilson, chairman of Mia’s board of trustees, which unanimously approved the pick at its meeting Tuesday.
That business-world know-how will come in handy as Mia moves forward with a campus revamp — outlined in a master plan adopted late last year — to make more room for artworks and people. Wilson noted “daunting challenges,” including “crumbling parking infrastructure and a huge lack of art storage.”
“She will be able to not only look at this master plan from the perspective of how is this going to serve our art, our community, our patrons,” he said, “but also, how can we make it work financially.”
Luber, who starts in January, succeeds Kaywin Feldman, who left Minneapolis’ encyclopedic museum in March for a high-profile post as the first female director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Luber will oversee a staff of 250, more than 90,000 artworks and a $35 million annual budget — much larger than the San Antonio Museum of Art, a younger institution that, in 2018, had an $11 million budget, 82 full-time employees and 30,000 works. San Antonio’s 132,000 visitors compares with 700,000-plus at Mia, which was founded in 1883.
“We had good directors, but we were at the point where we were looking for someone to take us to the next level,” said the San Antonio museum’s former board chairwoman, Karen Hixon, who hired Luber back in 2011.
Since then, the museum’s collection and endowment have swelled. Luber created an aggressive master plan to improve the campus, set in a historic brewery on San Antonio’s River Walk, and organized ambitious exhibitions, including an homage to Spain last year that included masterpieces seen in the United States for the first time. That show earned a feature in the New York Times.
“She really put us on the map,” Hixon said.
That exhibition, “Spain: 500 Years of Spanish Painting From the Museums of Madrid,” was challenging logistically and otherwise, Luber said in an interview Tuesday evening at the Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis. It cost more than $2 million, she said, making it “one of the biggest and most expensive shows the museum had ever done.” (After Bank of America came on board, others followed.)
She found it tough “getting anyone in San Antonio to think it was possible.” (She convinced them.) Then she had to persuade the Prado, one of the world’s renowned museums, to take San Antonio seriously. (Once it came on board, other Madrid institutions did, too.)
“She is a curator’s director in the sense that she loves art — all art of all periods, and has a great knowledge of art because she has been a curator,” said William Keyse Rudolph, the San Antonio museum’s chief curator. The two have known each other for 25 years, since they worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
They co-curated the Spain exhibit, which was “a lot of moving parts on an incredibly short runway,” he said. “We were Southwest Airlines — it was like a 20-minute turnaround.”
Luber encouraged her team to dream big, Rudolph said, and “let our little light shine.”
She has history with encyclopedic museums, including the Met in New York and the Philadelphia Museum, where she was a curator for nearly a decade, specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
Luber praised her predecessor at Mia, noting that Feldman’s influence extended well beyond Minneapolis: “She pushed the museum field forward.”
During her 11-year tenure, Feldman added a contemporary art department and made the museum a model for technology.
She also got national attention by championing exhibitions that reflected the Twin Cities’ diverse communities. In 2017, the museum hosted its first exhibition of contemporary Somali art. The following year, it showed works created in response to the police shooting death of Philando Castile. This summer, it hosted a nationally noted exhibition highlighting female American Indian artists, the first show of its kind.
Luber pledged to continue that work, making the museum more accessible and inclusive. In San Antonio, she rethought the museum’s work with children, connecting with public schools and rallying private funders to bring in at-risk and underserved Latino children for visits and programs.
That effort was inspired by a conversation with a City Council member who told her families in his district couldn’t afford to travel. “But they can come to the museum and see the world,” she said, her eyes welling with tears at the memory. “My heart broke in half.”
Luber will receive an initial annual salary of $500,000. By comparison, Feldman earned about $613,000 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2018, the most recent financial report available.
Born in Fort Worth, Luber, 58, earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, a master’s from the University of Texas at Austin and a Ph.D. in art history from Bryn Mawr. For her dissertation, she delved into paintings by Albrecht Dürer, the 16th-century German artist.
But she also holds an MBA from Johns Hopkins University. Luber started those studies as “a girl who hadn’t taken math since junior year of high school,” she said, and graduated as a lover of spreadsheets.
A class project turned into a veritable business: She launched, led and, after five years, sold the Seasoned Palate, a company specializing in organic spices sold in smaller, stay-fresh portions.
“The reason I went to get my MBA, honestly, is that when I was in the museum there was always a bit of disconnect between the business side and the curatorial side,” she told the San Antonio Express-News in 2011. “I’m a firm supporter of all things curatorial because I think that’s the heart and soul of a museum, but it is also a business, and there has to be a certain understanding of the way it has to operate.”
She said her husband jokes that if the 2008 recession hadn’t occurred, Luber might never have returned to museums.
That’s not true, she said. “I missed it a lot.” And those lessons have helped inside the galleries. “It really enriched my ability to look at problems in a different way than someone who’s only worked in a museum.”