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The American Swedish Institute’s Bruce Karstadt: ‘Adaptation, experimentation and creativity’

The American Swedish Institute reopens today. Timed tickets must be purchased in advance.

A night shot of ASI’s Dala Horse outside the Turnblad Mansion.
A night shot of ASI’s Dala Horse outside the Turnblad Mansion.
Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute

 

As Bruce Karstadt sat on the front porch of his apartment building, gazing across the street at the locked-down American Swedish Institute and longing to get back inside, he learned something that surprised him.

COVID had closed ASI’s campus, shutting the doors on the palatial Turnblad Mansion and the sleek Nelson addition and leaving the large parking lot empty. Except, as the president and CEO noticed, “It was empty of cars, but it was really pretty full of vibrant activity.

“There were Somali families there with their kids who were learning how to ride a bicycle or rollerblade. Every now and then, you’d see someone giving parking lessons to someone who must have been preparing for a driver’s test. It accented for me that this neighborhood has a need for safe, open places for people, especially residents, to congregate.

“I’m not sure I would have understood that if our parking lot had not been empty most evenings and I hadn’t seen so many of my neighborhood residents there.”

ASI is located at 26th and Park in Minneapolis, in the culturally diverse, economically challenged Phillips West neighborhood. It was founded in 1929 by a Swedish immigrant newspaper publisher who built a lavish mansion for his family, lived in it for 20 years, then gave it to what was called the American Institute for Swedish Art, Literature and Science.

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Karstadt came to ASI in 1990 and stayed. Since 1994, he has been honorary consul general of Sweden for the state of Minnesota. He holds an honorary doctorate from Sweden’s Lund University. In 2012, he received the Royal Order of the Polar Star from HM Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden.

Under Karstadt’s stewardship, ASI has grown in size, reputation and global reach. In 2012, the campus radically changed with the opening of the 34,000-square-foot Nelson Cultural Center, an HGA-designed, LEEDS-certified building that links to the Turnblad Mansion with a skyway on the ground. Programming ramped up with an international series of fascinating exhibitions and fun opening night parties. FIKA, the Café at ASI, drew crowds for its Nordic-inspired cuisine.

Until March 14, ASI was a bright and bustling place. Karstadt looked forward to continuing his latest big project: the restoration and preservation of the Turnblad Mansion and its Carriage House in their entirety. “We have the world’s largest collection of extension cords of any comparable museum,” he said drily, “and we would like to retire that collection soon.”

ASI reopens to the public today. As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: How did COVID change your plans for 2020?

Bruce Karstadt: This was to be the year when we celebrated our 90th anniversary. As a part of the observance of that milestone, we opened the exhibition “extra/ordinary,” which was inspired by the book “A to Zäåö.” It draws on our permanent collections to exhibit unique objects that tell stories that have a connection to our museum, our audience and our community.

We opened “extra/ordinary” in late February, and on March 14 we closed.

We had a number of special programs planned for the year. “Extra/ordinary” was to close in the late spring, and then we were bringing in an exhibit by two Swedish artists called “Papier” that has now been rescheduled for 2021. We have extended “extra/ordinary” until the end of January and we’ll be layering on Christmas in a unique way.

Another exhibit we had planned to show this year in our galleries was “Swedish Dads” by Swedish photographer Johan Bävman. We couldn’t show it in our galleries and we had to ship it on, but we got permission from the photographer to create an outdoor exhibition. It’s posted on our fence surrounding the campus. It came to us in English and Swedish, and we also translated it into Spanish and Somali.

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So 2020 has been a year of adaptation, experimentation and creativity in trying to respond to this pandemic and crisis that’s affected us all. Because of the financial stress and the practical implications of shipping things, and artists accompanying works of art and exhibitions, it may suggest that museums focus more on our permanent collections to create exhibitions. The blockbuster-type exhibition depends a lot upon heavy attendance and densely packed galleries. It may be really difficult to sustain that kind of model in the future.

A scene from “extra/ordinary,” on display at ASI through January 2021.
Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute
A scene from “extra/ordinary,” on display at ASI through January 2021.
We opened “extra/ordinary” with all of our own objects and artifacts and materials based on our own scholarship. I think it’s a brilliant exhibition and I’m so proud of it.

I’ve noticed a lot of people stopping by “Swedish Dads” as they’re walking down the street. That’s something we never would have thought of to do, or been compelled to do, had we not been forced with these circumstances and the need to adapt. So this whole situation has caused us all to think about things in very different ways.

MP: What was the hardest part of having to close so quickly?

BK: I think the hardest part from an emotional point of view was that we didn’t have a sense of the trajectory and the length of this situation. We were far too optimistic. Most of the closing announcements said something like “We’re temporary closing until April 15.” And “Performances are canceled through May 1.”

That’s not an indictment or criticism. We just didn’t anticipate that this would be so lengthy.

It’s a different thing to just shut the door to a museum. We also had to shut down a café and to do that in a way that was protective of the food and the sanitary conditions of the equipment. The closeout procedure for that was very extensive and exhaustive.

Then it was determining new ways of keeping connected with one another – our board, colleagues, volunteers, membership and community – and advising people about the changed circumstances of something that perhaps we planned to do with them and simply couldn’t.

MP: On March 24, Twin Cities Business reported that ASI had laid off part-time staff, café staff and public-facing staff. Were you able to keep your main staff?

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BK: The financial side has been difficult. We had built a model where earned revenue, additions, the café and event rentals were a significant part of the income stream that supported all that we did here. Without that, it became a real challenge.

We’ve managed, with a PPP loan and generous donations, to get through this year. Next year, it’s not so clear. Much is going to depend upon audience response, the return of visitors and continued generous philanthropy by members and good friends of the institute.

We did furlough all of our part-time staff. That continues from this point forward until we have a clearer sense as to how the year will go. But all of our principal staff are still working with us. We’re holding steady as we are right now.

MP: It must be exciting to be reopening.

BK: Yeah, it is, and this is what we do. This is what we’re dedicated to doing. Our mission speaks to us being a gathering place for all people, and we haven’t been able to gather in person, which is what we do best.

Thanks to some really creative and energetic staff, we have managed to create virtual gatherings and programs that are drawing people from a geographic range. We have been gratified to understand that our reach geographically is quite broad. We’re teaching Swedish language lessons to 240 people right now, and our students are located in all parts of the United States. Last term, we had a student from Berlin.

Bruce Karstadt shown with ASI's Dala Horse
Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute
Bruce Karstadt shown with ASI's Dala Horse on Members' Opening Day on Thursday.
The same is true for our Nordic Handcraft and Nordic Table workshops. And our public programs, like Richard Tellström’s talk on the history of Swedish gardens in June, or Neil Price’s lecture a couple of weeks ago that coincided with his new history of the Viking age.

MP: What has been lost in the past six months?

BK: Well, we’ve just had the summer that wasn’t, in a way. I think about this in terms of specific activities and people and images I have of how our campus has been used.

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I missed the naturalization ceremony that we host every year for new citizens, up in our Larson Hall. I missed the graduation ceremonies we had for our PICA Head Start children in nearby programs. They come here with their parents and their families, all dressed up and beaming, and have their graduation ceremonies in our place.

I miss the residents from Ebenezer coming here for a morning of craft workshops. We didn’t have Step Up volunteers this year, and I miss our volunteers. Hopefully, all will return in some fashion in the coming months and in 2020-21.

I missed our annual Midsommar Celebration, and the chance to dance around the maypole like little green frogs. I missed our crayfish dinner.

I also missed the daily soup changes in FIKA Café. It’s been so good these last couple of days to hear bustling in the kitchen and smell aromas flowing through the building as Chef Blake Meier and his team get ready to reopen.

MP: Most people probably aren’t aware that you live across the street from the American Swedish Institute. What has that been like?

BK: I even live in the same building that Swan Turnblad, our founder, lived in between 1929 and 1933. And I’m on the same floor as Mr. Turnblad was.

It was frustrating early on. We were under a mandate not to go to work, and there I was, across the street, looking at my place of work.

There were moments of apprehension during the civic unrest after the murder of George Floyd, when the curfews were in place. I was prevented from going over there and keeping watch, so I would sit on the front porch of our building and pay careful attention to my place across the street and pray and hope for the best.

We took measures to prevent unwarranted intrusion by boarding up the first-level windows of the Turnblad Mansion, which I thought was a prudent thing to do. I walked around the mansion a few times each night because I couldn’t help myself from being worried. We suffered no intrusion and no mischief happened.

Of course, all of our focus was upon what was unfolding in other parts of the city, especially just a few blocks away, along Lake Street, where there was great damage and great suffering. Our grief turned there as opposed to the small inconvenience we had at 26th and Park.

Those were rather unnerving moments to be so directly and personally connected, with my home and my place of work at the same intersection.

MP: How do you think George Floyd’s death will affect the ASI going forward?

BK: It continues to reinforce the notion that we have a role to play in this community, especially our immediate neighborhood. We need to think really carefully about how can we best serve our neighborhood, which comprises a lot of recent immigrants who are building new lives here in Minneapolis. We care deeply about them, and they see us increasingly as a museum that they can depend upon for enlightenment, for entertainment and for simply a place of safety for children to play and to learn.

We have established a small community fund for financial assistance to help rebuild. We’re considering how to make the best use of that.

MP: How have you kept yourself motivated during these long months of lockdown?

BK: I keep talking to people. I live alone. The isolation could be overwhelming, so motivation for me is rooted in a deep commitment to the work I do and the community we serve. It’s also just remaining connected and drawing on the strength, inspiration and support from good friends, trustees, colleagues and donors. So maybe the main lesson for me is don’t stay isolated.

An image from “Swedish Dads,” an exhibit currently on display on ASI’s fence.
Courtesy of the American Swedish Institute
An image from “Swedish Dads,” an exhibit currently on display on ASI’s fence.
MP: Where have you turned for advice? Who has been a good source of information and support for you?

BK: I can especially cite our most immediate past chair, Barbara Linell Glaser. She has been really, really helpful. And then I would say a good friend, a colleague, and a fellow native Kansan, Lyndel King. She’s been a real stalwart to me, and I am grateful to her for that.

[Note: King recently retired as director and chief curator at the Weisman Art Museum. The Frank Gehry-designed building is her legacy.]

MP: What keeps you up at night?

BK: This day and age, everything keeps me up at night! I fret about a lot. I don’t know that I can name one particular thing. Being the head of any organization has such a broad portfolio of responsibilities. And at some point in time, there’s going to be a little fire under something that has to be dealt with.

We have got to build a bridge to straddle this crisis everyone is in. And I fervently hope that we’ll be able to secure the funding for much-needed renovation work on the Turnblad Mansion and the carriage house, which will give such a solid foundation for the continuation of ASI’s work in the community. That’s what I’m focused on right now.

MP: What is the first thing you’ll do when you can do whatever you want?

BK: Probably travel to Sweden to reconnect with colleagues, friends and family there. This will be the first year that I have not gone to Sweden in 35 years. As much as I maintain connections with friends and colleagues by phone and with a Zoom chat every now and then, it is not the same. So that’s what I will do. I’ll buy a ticket and I’ll fly across the Atlantic.

***

The American Swedish Institute will be open to the public today through Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Timed tickets must be purchased in advance. Walk-up admissions are not available. Capacity restrictions are in place. Face coverings are required.

Starting next week, ASI will be open Thursdays through Sundays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. FIKA will be open the same hours as the museum, with lunch served from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. FMI and tickets.

On Sunday (Sept. 13) at 2 p.m. CST, “Swedish Dads” artist Johan Bävran will give a virtual talk on the stories behind his photographs and on Sweden’s generous paternal leave policy. He’ll give another talk on Wednesday, Sept. 23, also at 2 p.m. CST. Register here ($5 per talk).