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Lyndel King's 'amazing vision,' passion were keys to audacious Weisman's completion

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In a yearlong series, MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Weisman Art Museum (WAM)
Photo by Rik Sferra for WAM
Weisman Art Museum (WAM)

Say you are heading to work one morning and you know it's going to be a tough day — long hours, piles of pressure and a relentless pace. You boot up your computer and find an email from the boss, asking you to watch a clip from Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of a Shakespeare classic.

In the film, King Henry V is leading his exhausted English footmen across Northwestern France, frightfully outnumbered by French forces. The king rallies them with one of the most famous leadership speeches in English literature: "The fewer men, the greater share of honor. … He who hath no stomach for this fight let him depart. … We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."

The words are intense and inspired — audacious, too.

Lyndel King summoned those words in a move that was characteristic of her intense, inspired and audacious bid to bring the Weisman Art Museum to its full stature at the University of Minnesota. She sent the clip to her staff in the wind-up weeks before the October grand reopening of the expanded museum now known as WAM.

Lyndel King
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Lyndel King

Oh, for good measure, she also brought her "troops" ample supplies of jelly beans, something poor King Henry didn't have at his disposal.

"It gives people strength," she declared with authority. "I just know that sugar works."

Whatever doesn't cut it
Through the Great Recession, through debilitating staff cuts and other obstacles that might have stopped a different project with a different leader, King drove to fulfillment her longstanding vision of an art museum that would be pushy about pulling in students.  

"We are not a whatever building, and we didn't want to be a whatever place," she said. "We wanted to be a place that thrust itself into the middle of students' lives and made them pay attention to art."

As the university suffered budget cut after budget cut, King lost 20 percent of the Weisman's staff, shrinking the number of workers to the lowest level since 1993 at the very time they faced more work than ever before. 

But the building that was started 20 years ago was incomplete. It was short on gallery space. And the brick back it turned to the campus was out of character with its stunning, metal-sculpted front.

So the expansion was central to the Weisman's mission and strategy. King's determination to draw people to art depended on the full and completed building.  

In other words, giving up wasn't an option.

"You just do it," she said. "And we had some great people here who just did it."

They may not have felt like "the happy few," (to borrow Shakespeare's words) at every step of the project, but King's staff came through for the cause, working horrendous hours to realize the vision she had held for more than two decades.

New kid on the block
"Lyndel has amazing vision," said Frank Gehry, whose architectural firm designed the Weisman and then went on to design the acclaimed Guggenheim Museum in Balboa, Spain, and other landmark buildings around the world.

Weisman Art Museum (WAM)
Photo by Rik Sferra for WAM
Weisman Art Museum (WAM)

"She has a vision as to what a museum can accomplish ... and she has accomplished a lot of what she set out to do," Gehry said in a telephone interview from his firm's Los Angeles office. "She is a tough fighter, she knows what she wants, and she works hard."

Back in 1981, when King became director and chief curator for the University Art Museum, she oversaw a superb collection. The gallery itself was a different story. The art was all but hidden in the recesses of cavernous Northrop Auditorium.

When King set out in the early 1990s to build a new museum, she was "kind of the new kid on the block," Gehry said, in terms of Twin Cities galleries. The biggest kids were her counterparts at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center.

King challenged a lot of bigger kids with the first phase of the Weisman's striking building, said Linda Mack, a prominent architecture critic in Minneapolis.

The daring, metal-clad design "set off a wave of aspiration architecture on campus and also raised the bar for other cultural institutions in Minneapolis," Mack said.

Later, when the Walker expanded and the Guthrie Theater built a new home, they were driven to make their own bold architectural statements.

"King deserves a lot of credit for that, and so do the folks who were involved in the architectural selection for the Weisman," Mack said. "But obviously, her leadership was crucial."

Full vision put on hold
Truth be told, though, the 1993 version of the Weisman wasn't a perfect model.  It was designed to fit the budget that was available at the time, putting on hold the full vision of King and her team.

"This expansion was crucial, because the first iteration ended with a dead end and it didn't breathe down at that end," Gehry said. "It needed the cork pulled out so you could go around the corner. She knew that from a long time ago. We discussed that when we did the first phase, so this was always in her mind as important to accomplish."

The $14 million expansion doubled the exhibition space with four new galleries and the Target Studio for Creative Collaboration.

Lyndel King, left, and architect Frank Gehry celebrate WAM opening
Photo by Christopher Selleck for WAM
Lyndel King, left, and architect Frank Gehry celebrate WAM opening.

Enter the front door, and you don't see a stately lobby. You see art — bold, eye-popping pieces that demand attention. And one piece draws you to the next until you are deep into the museum. You see galleries that are specific to the art they house — intimate and meditative spaces for some pieces and open, brightly lit spaces for others.

One strategic advantage of the new space is that many gems in the Weisman's extensive collection will remain on display for longer periods of time — enough time for patrons to develop long-term attachments.

"If students get hooked on a painting, they will be able to come back and look at that same thing again and again," King said. "So my goal would be that when parents come for graduation students would say, 'We have to go to the Weisman because I have to show you my favorite painting.' ... And if they come back as alumni, they would come to the museum to see it. That's what I love the most about this new space."

'Not a very Lutheran building'
From the beginning, the project has posed risks, not the least of which was the controversial design of the building itself. King recalled that former U of M president Nils Hasselmo commented to her back in 1993, "You know, it's not a very Lutheran building."

Hasselmo and other U presidents have supported King's bold strides, though. And his comment was mild compared to some others.

Remember the many attempts — disparaging and flattering alike — to describe the building when its first phase rose from a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in 1993? It was the exploded artichoke, the alien space ship, the ice castle that never melts.

The museum shares the U of M campus' East Bank with kindred spirits — music, art, history and architecture, as well as the sciences. It looks across the river to the business and law schools that dominate the West Bank.

King was delighted by this note someone wrote in a museum guest book: "There it stands like a silver knight guarding the East Bank from the MBA's."

Here's my favorite: It's a grain elevator hit by a tornado. That description says the building fits the American Midwest. It also fits King's background.

King was born in 1943 in Enid, Okla., and a few years later her family moved to Hugoton, a small town perched on the windy, high plains of western Kansas. Her father ran the local grain elevator, and she loved climbing to its top.

"You could see forever because it was so flat," she recalled. "It was in the middle of a prehistoric ocean."

'I never looked back'
There were no art museums in town. Indeed, King had to wait until she attended the University of Kansas before she set foot in one.

Much as she loved her first art-history classes in college, art was not seen as a career in practical Kansas. So she became a biochemist and virologist, working for several years in labs in Louisiana and Kansas.

It wasn't until she and her husband, Blaine King, moved to Minnesota in the 1970s that she abandoned caution and plunged into graduate studies in art history.

"I never looked back," she said.

And she brought the ardent zeal of a convert to her new career.

"Because I had never been to a museum until I went to college, I really know the power that that experience can have over people," King said. "So I'm a convert and an evangelist. ... I'm much more passionate than people who grew up with it and had that experience throughout their lives."

"She took art history, and she just fell in love with it," said King's long-time friend Nina Archabal. "This is a love affair where this woman is concerned. She is doing exactly what she should be doing. ...  Psychologically and intellectually, she is absolutely suited to where she is."

Out of the rafters
The two friends worked together at the U of M gallery before Archabal jumped to the Minnesota Historical Society, where she rose to become the director. She retired recently.  

"We were young, we were ambitious, we were ready to learn and we didn't know when we were being taken advantage of," Archabal recalled. "We worked like dogs, and both of us learned a huge amount."

They also fumed over the fact that great art had been stuffed away all of those years in the Northrop rafters. Archabal said that helps explain King's determination to make the Weisman so very prominent.

Lyndel King and architect Frank Gehry walk around WAM
Photo by Christopher Selleck for WAM
Lyndel King and architect Frank Gehry walk around WAM.

"You have to spend time in the rafters to be really determined," Archabal said.

In terms of square footage, the Weisman is far from being the largest building on campus. But in location and design, it deliberately is something students simply can't miss. Never again would the art collection become lost in that large and politically complex institution that is the University of Minnesota.

"Basically it's a sculpture on that campus and it says, 'Look at me and pay attention!' " Archabal said. "She was speaking directly to students even in the design of the building."

'She is a diva ... the museum is a diva'
But more was at work than a determination to impress students. King has a keen sense of visual significance.

"She has an eye ... and she is always working that eye wherever she is — if she is shopping, if she is at a museum, no matter where she is she is working that eye which is so well trained," Archabal said.

Further, King exudes personal flair beginning with her own clothing — she drapes herself in colors, styles and textures that are art works in and of themselves.

"She is a diva and the museum is a diva," Archabal said. "I can't think of anyone else I know who would have done what Lyndel did at the Weisman. It's that unique marriage of determination, personality, vision, commitment and intelligence."

The gallery as lectern
King's drive to proselytize for art started at the University of Kansas with a class in contemporary art.

"The professor made me understand it," she said. "He made me see what the artist was trying to accomplish. ...  He talked about color and the emotional quality of color, about gesture and the emotional quality of gesture. That was a big 'Ah ha!' for me because I am a little girl from Kansas who never had seen an abstract painting in her life."

He changed her life, and she wanted to do the same for others.

She does teach university classes — often in creative collaboration with professors of medicine and engineering. But teaching wasn't exactly the right fit. A professorship comes with an imperative to spend long hours doing research, writing and publishing. That was not for her. 

Her lectern would be the gallery.

In essence, what is taught there? I asked. What does art do for people?

"Art opens up possibilities to you and gives you options," she said. "It helps you understand history. It helps you understand the present day. It allows you to give your emotional side more free rein than oftentimes people do. It reaches out to you and grabs you. It just does. It just lets you look at the world in more than one way. It lets you see your own world, your surroundings your context in more than one way."

For students, in particular, she said, it opens new views to the world.

"This is a time when people are deciding what kind of people they are going to be," she said.  "So I've always said we want to give them an equal opportunity to learn to love art as they have to learn to love hockey. It's not that everybody is going to be an art fan, but not everybody is going to be a hockey fan either."

Leading with passion
Now that this substantial project is completed, I asked King to contemplate on the nature of the leadership it takes to accomplish something of such stature.

"Leadership involves passion," she said. "I can't imagine being the leader of something that I didn't care about.  ... You have to be willing to go through hard times, see the end, and help other people see the end to keep them from getting discouraged."

She distinguished between leadership and management.

"To be a good manager, you have to be well organized and you have to understand how systems work," she said. "To be a good leader you have to understand something of that, but you have to add the vision piece. You have to see beyond the systems that make the organization run smoothly on a day to day basis. ... You have to have a vision that you are willing to pursue through thick and thin. We had a lot of thin around here. "

One reward for surviving the thin is the deep satisfaction of making a lasting impact. Years ago, U of M officials actually talked about eliminating the art museum. No more.

"You can't make this building into a chemistry lab," she said. "You are going to have an art museum at the University of Minnesota for a very long time because this building is here. It's hard to use it for anything else."

More to do
So now that it's finished, is she ready to retire?

"I can't say I've never thought about it, but I don't have any plans," she said. "I'll know when it's time. You need to make way for younger people.  Eventually I suppose I'll run out of energy, but please don't say I'm ready to retire."

One of the remaining items on her to-do list is to shore up the museum's finances so it can go forward on a sound footing.

"And I want to bask in the glory for just a little while," she said. "You have to let me do that for a couple of years."

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Comments (1)

Born in Oklahoma, educated at KU, making her profession in the Twin Cities . . . must be me, right? No, it is Lyndel King, someone I did not know, but whom I feel proud of after reading this great article. I have taken groups of international students to the Weisman in the past and can testify that it does, indeed, get students engaged. Again, thank you for a very informative and inspiring piece of journalism. And thanks to Ms. King for carrying out a challenging but very important mission at the University of Minnesota. I love the photo of her with Frank Gehry! I haven't visited the Weisman for some time, and after reading this, I know that I must do so again, and soon!