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What’s up with the M? And good news for the Weisman

ALSO: 18 full concerts by the Minnesota Orchestra available virtually; where to find July 4 fireworks displays.

The M’s home is on the first floor of the historic Pioneer Endicott in St. Paul.
The M’s home is on the first floor of the historic Pioneer Endicott in St. Paul.
Minnesota Museum of Art

Wednesday’s news of the Minnesota Museum of Art’s recent acquisition – all five volumes of the MPLSART Sketchbook Project 2020 – made us wonder what else is going on at the M.

Maybe you wondered, too. Aside from announcements of exhibitions in its St. Paul skyway and street-level window galleries on Fourth Street and Robert Street N., and virtual or low-contact events related to those, the M has seemed shrouded in mystery for more than a year.

Like everything else, it closed to COVID-19 in March 2020, but no reopening date has been announced. The final phase of its build-out of the historic Pioneer Endicott Building has been on hold. We’ve never learned why its director for more than a decade, Kristin Makholm, was “released from her position” in mid-July by then board chair Gregory Page.

Chris Widdess, former managing director of Penumbra Theatre, has been serving as interim executive director, but there has been no news about the search for a permanent ED. And there’s a new board chair. Ann Ruhr Pifer, perhaps best known for her years owning and running the Grand Hand Gallery but with deep roots in nonprofit management, arts and fine craft, succeeded Page in April of this year.

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That’s a lot of uncertainty for one small museum. Then again, the M has a colorful past. Since its founding in the late 1800s, it has moved several times, changed its name often (some might think “the M” is merely the latest iteration) and suffered a series of financial cliffhangers. When Makholm took over in 2009, it had no home and its collections were in storage. Its permanent address was a P.O. box.

The M may be small, but it’s scrappy. A grand reopening in November 2018 was especially promising. As part of a multimillion-dollar construction project, a large swath of the first floor of the Pioneer-Endicott had become a welcoming lobby, an architecturally interesting interior courtyard and a spacious gallery. Jewels from the M’s collections were on display. Another 18,000 square feet were slated for completion.

Then everything seemed to grind to a halt. Of course, it didn’t. The window gallery exhibitions continued. Behind the scenes, a small staff was hard at work. And then the M spent nearly $20,000 on five artists’ sketchbooks.

Money that funds collections is different from money that covers salaries and operations. Still, we had questions. And the first thing we learned from a quick phone call Wednesday afternoon with Widdess, which was confirmed by Pifer, is that decisions will be made at a board meeting on July 22.

Meanwhile, the M has committed to previously announced programming into January 2022. It includes “Wise, Gifted, and Black: Art by the Magnificent Golden Agers” in the Robert St. N. window gallery through July 17, with a free, all-ages art kit available; the St. Paul Public Schools 2021 Honors Visual Art Exhibition in the 4th St. gallery, also through July 17; “Many Waters: A Minnesota Biennial,” a juried exhibition of art in a variety of media, in partnership with NewStudio Gallery in St. Paul (July 24-Oct. 2); and “Sutures,” a show of photo- and film-based artworks by emerging artists (Oct. 30-Jan. 29, 2022).

Pifer filled us in on a few more details – again, with the caveat that we’ll know more in July.

“We are looking forward to moving ahead with the completion phase of our construction,” she said by phone, also on Wednesday afternoon. “We don’t have specific announcements on that yet, but we expect to be able to have a further announcement toward the end of July.”

Regarding the search for the new ED, “We are excited that we’ve retained 8 Bridges Workshop [a consulting firm led by Sarah Lutman] as our adviser to our executive director search, and that our search committee is up and running.

“And we’re really excited about the sketchbook acquisition. It’s such a great fit for the M. The way it captures this unique moment in time, through the eyes of so many Twin Cities artists. It’s an amazing thing, and I love that the proceeds of the sale go back to the artists. It fits so nicely with the M’s mission of representing Minnesota experience through art, and in supporting working Minnesota artists.”

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Anything else?

“Like all arts organizations, we’ve been through a tough time during COVID. We are excited to be coming out the other end of that and looking ahead toward the future with optimism. The museum has an important role to play in the Twin Cities arts landscape.”

We’ll talk again in July and let you know what we hear.

WAM in the news

The Weisman Art Museum made national news twice this week as its doors remain closed for maintenance until sometime this fall.

Former WAM director Lyndel King received the 2021 Award for Distinguished Service to Museums from the American Alliance of Museums, the only organization representing the entire scope of the museum community. The award recognizes King’s exemplary and transformative work as director and chief curator of WAM for 40 years, from 1981-2020.

In 1981, King was one of very few women heading museums in the U.S.

Lyndel King at the Weisman’s “Clouds, Temporarily Visible” exhibition in 2016.
Courtesy of the Weisman Art Museum
Lyndel King at the Weisman’s “Clouds, Temporarily Visible” exhibition in 2016.
Under her leadership, the Weisman became one of the most influential university museums in the United States. King increased its collections by 64% and its physical size by 550%, from rooms on the fourth floor of Northrop (then called Northrop Auditorium; this was long before its major renovation) to the iconic Frank Gehry-designed steel-and-brick edifice on the banks of the Mississippi. Our Gehry preceded the Gehrys in Bilbao and Los Angeles.

King championed women by hiring, mentoring and promoting them across the field, and she added a significant number of works by women artists to WAM’s collections. She oversaw hundreds of exhibitions including prominent shows of Latin American, African and Native American art. She also served on numerous boards locally and nationally.

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King retired from the Weisman in June 2020. A national search for her successor was paused during the early months of the pandemic and relaunched in April of this year.

In other Weisman news, the Andy Warhol Foundation announced its Spring 2021 grants. Of the $3.8 million that will go to 50 museums and arts organizations from 20 states, WAM will receive $100,000 to host artist and prison reform activist Emily Baxter. She will produce “SEEN,” a residency and exhibition program that pairs incarcerated artists with peers outside of the prison system.

In announcing the grants, the Warhol noted that “a number of grantees took advantage of the quieter time of postponed programs to focus on experiments and innovations in their residency programs.” This is one of those.

Baxter’s nonprofit, We Are All Criminals (WAAC), was originally scheduled to be the Weisman’s organization-in-residence in fall 2020. That didn’t happen, but the Cedar gave us glimpses into WAAC/WAM works in progress on its public access channel in October.

While WAM is closed, you can visit its permanent collection virtually. Or walk or bike by and view the 60-foot wraparound mural, “Just Yesterday,” on the building’s exterior façade through Oct. 1.

The picks

V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.

An image from the Minnesota Orchestra’s Season Finale concert on Friday, June 25, with Osmo Vänskä leading Erin Keefe and members of the orchestra in Kurt Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra.
Screen shot
An image from the Minnesota Orchestra’s Season Finale concert on Friday, June 25, with Osmo Vänskä leading Erin Keefe and members of the orchestra in Kurt Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra.
V Available now: 18 full concerts by the Minnesota Orchestra. The orchestra recently concluded a tremendous feat: a complete season of concerts streamed live from Orchestra Hall, hosted by Sarah Hicks, co-produced by TPT and broadcast over Classical MPR. We can’t imagine how these could have been any better. Even the hall, nearly empty except for the musicians, looked inviting, thanks to Michael Murnane’s lighting design. TPT set up shop in Orchestra Hall, and producer Ashleigh Rowe, who traveled with the orchestra during its 2018 South Africa tour and produced the memorable “Music for Mandela” video, made sure everything ran like clockwork. All concerts are available to stream on demand, for free, along with clips, interviews and extras. Catch one or two over the holiday weekend. And if you want some background, here’s a “making of” video.

L Fourth of July fireworks. There won’t be any city-sponsored fireworks this year in downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul. But that doesn’t mean you have to go without. Explore Minnesota has a lengthy list of fireworks near the Twin Cities and throughout the state, from Albert Lea to Worthington. In St. Paul, you can catch some at CHS Field following every Saints game from July 2-4.