Last fall Kate Beane got a call from her friend Jim Denomie, the late artist, who was helping the Minnesota Museum of American Art search for a new executive director. Beane wasn't sure she wanted the job, which had been vacant since July 2020.
"I think you'd be great at the M," he told her.
Beane was director of Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society, and wasn't really looking to move. But Denomie, who passed away last month, was someone who offered "his support for not only Native artists, but Native professionals in the field," said Beane. "To be honest, I think that was one of the big draws for me."
She wound up becoming the M's executive director last December, and is settling into her new vision of a museum that truly engages community.
Beane, who is Flandreau Santee Sioux Dakota and Muskogee Creek, holds a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. She sees her work more broadly as storytelling.
The Star Tribune caught up with her to find out what's next for the museum, which has remained closed since the start of the pandemic and the firing of executive director Kristin Makholm, who had led the M back from bankruptcy to a new home in downtown St. Paul. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: I didn't realize Jim Denomie played such a role in your decision.
A: The Minnesota Historical Society was absolutely fabulous in terms of experience and the communities I was able to work with. I think one of the things that was hard, just to be honest, is the politics of it. This is where Jim was a great mentor to me. Sometimes when you're working around difficult histories and narratives for people of color, you get backlash. He and I have both had to deal with that over the years, and we supported each other through that.
As I was working around places like Fort Snelling and Bde Maka Ska and historic sites across the region, I realized that I was getting pulled more and more into the visual arts. Part of the reason for that is in terms of how to help the public see and understand these complex narratives. I didn't want to see any more textual plaques. I wanted to see more public art that had this power to impact people in a way that texts can't.
My father is a huge mentor to me — he's a community organizer, who's retired, and now a filmmaker. I told him it was a big jump, for me to go from public history to the arts, and he said "No, it's not, Katie, it's all the same thing. It's storytelling." And it's in that same work in terms of being an advocate, and a big supporter of including narratives and perspectives and voices that have historically been excluded.
Q: What's the status of the museum's plan to reopen?
A: We are finishing up a capital campaign and hope to open in probably late 2023. We're expanding from 2,000 square feet of gallery space to 6,000. We're still going to be in the historic Pioneer Endicott building, but we're going to take up a bigger footprint.
Q: What's your vision for the M?
A: I'm really interested in the community partnership model that we've been developing over the years, working with local organizations, local artists and local art collectives, such as Grupo Soap del Corazón.
We need to really home in on the heart of what the M is, and bring it to the present in terms of the diversity of who we are as a region. I'm thinking about the ways that the M can be a hub for community artists and BIPOC people's diverse representation and Native arts throughout the region, in a way that is uplifting to our community partners.
Q: What are some ideas of exhibitions or programming that you have in mind?
A: One of the things I've been thinking a lot about is highlighting a Native Arts Initiative. I am Dakota, and I wouldn't in any way not bring part of that into the work.
Oftentimes, as Native people here in Minnesota, our arts and our representation gets pulled into other spaces. Ojibwe get pulled north, Ho Chunk get pulled to Wisconsin, and Dakota representations often get pulled west onto the Plains alongside the Lakota, but we as Native people know that the center of Native arts in this region is here. We want to uplift that regional focus of Native arts in Minnesota as a hub.
Often, when we talk about diverse communities, you have these one-off exhibitions. You have an exhibition about a certain community, and then you don't engage with them again. What we really want to see is all of these sort of broader themes and connections integrated throughout.