Raising $5 million for contemporary art is tough anytime, but doing it in a recession is a real feat. Eric Dayton credits his success in bringing that much to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to his own naivete and the ideas and enthusiasm of many others.

The museum announced last week that during the past eight months about 30 people had given it $5 million worth of international contemporary art, or cash to buy art. The 25 artworks, which will be incorporated into the galleries during the next few months, amplify ideas and themes found in the museum's traditional collections

The additions include a video installation about landscape and migration by American artist Doug Aitken; a room-sized sculpture about exile by Iranian-born Minneapolis-based artist Siah Armajani, and mural-sized images by German photographer Thomas Struth. Many of the pieces inject timely topics, multi-cultural themes or mixed race imagery into galleries long dominated by Euro-American subjects.

"In just a few months this has brought us a contemporary collection, which is terrific," said Kaywin Feldman, the museum's director. "It's also attracted new audiences along with some new patrons and -- a lovely surprise -- it's reanimating the rest of the collection. People want to look more and discover something new."

Fast-track teamwork

As the youngest member of the museum's board of directors, Dayton, 30, spearheaded the initiative with Elizabeth Armstrong, who was hired in 2008 as an assistant director of the institute and its first curator of contemporary art.

"I'd never done this before so I had no idea how to go about raising this amount of money," said Dayton, the eldest son of gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton. "Maybe I benefited from the naivete of thinking that we could pull it off on a short timeline. A lot of people got caught up in it and it was a lot of fun."

Armstrong sparked the campaign with two programs this spring: "Art Re-mix," which plunked contemporary pieces into traditional galleries, and "Until Now," a show of post-1960 art on loan from artists, galleries and collectors around the world.

The museum already owned some important art from the second half of the 20th century, but it was acquired haphazardly. Armstrong proposed to fill gaps in the collection and coordinate future purchases with other departments so visitors could see the continuity -- and critique -- of cultures in the United States and other parts of the world.

She's especially excited about the recent acquisition of 50 history paintings by former Minnesota legislator Cy Thao about the Hmong diaspora after the war in Vietnam.

"Contemporary artists are always looking at history and other cultures, and we have the context to put that in," she said. "That colors everything we do. Yes, we want to talk about artists today, but in the context of what went before."

Armstrong was particularly interested in the challenge of mixing old and new art because she had worked at contemporary museums for more than 30 years, most recently as acting director of the Orange County Museum of Art in California. She was a curator at Walker Art Center for 14 years, from 1982 to '96, and subsequently organized shows that traveled there.

Rather than compete with the Walker, she believes the MIA's new initiative will complement the work of its modern-minded sister museum.

"Invariably the Walker and the MIA will have some of the same artists," she said. "I talk with them about what they have and try to show a different side of the artists. I want our collections to dovetail so they offer the broadest range to the community."

Because the Walker's collection is especially strong in 1960s pop and '70s minimalist art that is now quite pricey, she has advised the institute to pursue such work only if collectors are willing to donate it. (Most of the recent acquisitions are post-1980.)

Youth appeal

Contemporary art tends to appeal to the younger visitors and patrons that all arts organizations want.

Encyclopedic museums across the country are "using it as a way to enliven their collections," director Feldman said. A $50 million building addition that the museum opened in 2006 was intended in part for contemporary art.

When Dayton joined the museum's board in 2005, he immediately set about revitalizing The Circle, a program for young professionals. Later he asked Armstrong for art suggestions in honor of his grandfather, Bruce Dayton, an institute trustee for more than 65 years who, with his wife Ruth, gave millions worth of Chinese furniture and art. They settled on a white marble chair by Ai Weiwei, a Chinese-born artist and dissident who carved it in the Ming style as a memorial to the centuries of history and culture that China is obliterating in its rush to modernize.

"It was a fun way to bridge his interests in ancient Chinese furniture and mine in contemporary art," said Eric Dayton.

Though Dayton took a couple of art history classes as an undergraduate at Williams College, they didn't have much impact. "I would always struggle through the slide quizzes, so that was the end of my formal art education," he said. Instead, family and museums filled in with first-hand encounters.

"I was lucky to grow up with access to really great art, which is a privilege and a luxury, but the MIA democratizes great art and makes it available to anyone," he said.

Armstrong attributes the new program's success to Dayton's drive.

"He's so compelling," she said. "It's his generation and there's a kind of boldness to the way he approached this; it inspired and shook up the board. To see cross-generational continuity at a time when so much is unstable is really inspirational."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431