One of the most popular figures in Minnesota's art museum circles, Stewart Turnquist, has abruptly resigned from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts staff after more than 30 years.

The departure of Turnquist, coordinator of the artist-run Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), signals continuing turmoil at the institute where management has been in upheaval the past five years. In that time, it has had three directors and lost at least seven curators and top administrators to other jobs, retirement or death.

A major staff reorganization, begun last year by director William Griswold and completed by his successor, Kaywin Feldman, who arrived in January, appears to have precipitated Turnquist's decision.

As word of his imminent departure leaked out Tuesday, artists worried that it signaled the end of the MAEP program, the state's most prominent showcase for Minnesota talent. Museum officials insisted it will remain.

"We at the MIA appreciate Stewart's many contributions and the MAEP is the most impressive of its kind in America," Feldman said through museum spokesperson Anne Marie Wagener. Feldman was vacationing in Europe.

Wagener said the popular MAEP is integral to the museum's new strategic plan and will continue under the oversight of the museum's new curator of contemporary art, Liz Armstrong, a former Walker Art Center curator who begins work at the Institute in August.

Turnquist, 66, confirmed he had resigned with two weeks notice, but otherwise declined to comment, citing museum policy and legal issues. "I was never thinking of retirement," he said.

"It's shocking news," said filmmaker Tom DeBiaso, a member of the artist panel that runs the MAEP. "Stewart's leadership has been fundamental to the success of the program, and [the reorganization and his departure] raises a lot of questions about the independence of the program."

Committee of artists

Established in 1975, the MAEP is the only curatorial department in any American museum that is run by a committee of artists elected by their peers. Turnquist was hired by the museum in 1977 as a liaison between the artist committee and the museum staff, to supervise art installations, write brochures and grant applications and run interference during controversies.

Like other curators, he reported to the museum's director until the reorganization. Then the MAEP was demoted to a subdivision within a new contemporary art department. MAEP partisans argue the artists' voices and choices will be compromised by the new structure.

"Liz will do a great job running a contemporary program, but that isn't the point," said Cynde Randall, a former associate director of the MAEP program. "The question is whether there will still be a place where the museum is collaborating with the artist community without being inhibited by curatorial fashion or commercial demand."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431