An exhibition at the Hennepin History Museum (HHM) shines a light on the museum’s “Hidden Gems,” after a project initiated a year ago aimed at cataloguing the collection.
Funded with a legacy grant from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society, the project involved cataloguing, photographing, researching and re-housing about 350 paintings, drawings, and collages in the museum’s collection.
“It was a huge victory for us, because with our art collection, we didn’t have full intellectual control of what we had, what artists were represented, and who donated them, and when they were from,” says HHM curator Alyssa Thiede. “What we discovered is that we have some really incredible Minnesota modern art in our collection, and we were excited to put it on display.”
Many of the pieces in the exhibition have never been on view at the museum, or haven’t been shown in many years. Other pieces were re-framed in order to properly preserve them.
Founded in 1938 as the Hennepin County Historical Society with a $60,000 Works Progress Administration grant, the museum was located in St. Louis Park and then the Loring Park neighborhood, before purchasing its current building in 1957 from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (now the Minneapolis Institute of Art, or Mia). The building— made in the style of Renaissance Revival and English Gothic architecture by Hewitt and Brown— was owned by Carolyn McKnight Christian, who had been a philanthropist and active volunteer for much of her life, and had donated her home to Mia.
Besides exhibiting art and history in its programming, the museum has a research library, runs a magazine called Hennepin History, and maintains various digital collections.
In recent years, a lack of resources has meant some of the collection’s works were not preserved to the best standard, Thiede says. “We didn’t have the resources to do the research to know what we had, and the records had been misplaced. Over the years, information gets lost.”
Two years ago, listing all the artists in the museum’s collection wouldn’t have been an easy task. “Intellectual control is knowing exactly what we now have in our collection,” Thiede says. The archival project involved matching original records. ‘That’s obviously a really important part of cataloging projects,” Thiede says. “Being able to locate that information because that all lives in hard copies and files. And until you take the time to match records, the information isn’t immediately available to you.”
The legacy funding paid to catalog objects and record all of their physical descriptions, plus research artist, donor, and original accession of each object. “We were able to rehouse things into the art collection so that we’re better able to access everything and make sure everything’s preserved properly,” Thiede says. They were also able to photograph objects for its digital collection.
One of Thiede’s favorite artists in the show is Mary Gale Hobbs, an educator who created an art curriculum for the Minneapolis Schools, and produced drawings, lithographs and watercolors in the mid 20th century. In Players,” Hobbs depicts herself and her husband in bright, unnaturally saturated colors. Though not as well-known as some of the others in the exhibition, Thiede says she’s drawn to Hobbs’ beautiful whimsical pieces.
One piece in the show features a woodblock print by Eugene Larkin, an artist who sketched musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra, creating pieces in an abstract expressionist style. There’s also work by Cameron Booth, a popular professor first at the Minneapolis School of Art (now MCAD) and later the University of Minnesota.
The exhibition highlights women artists from Minnesota history, like Josephine Lutz Rollins, who helped found the Stillwater Art Colony and the woman-centered West Lake Gallery, as well as Bettye Olson, whose vibrant “Water and Bridge” painting looks like a Van Gogh painting.
The exhibition lacks BIPOC artists, which points to a weakness the museum discovered in its collection. “It shows me moving forward that’s something I’d like to focus on,” Thiede says. In her role as curator with the museum, she’s brought in contemporary BIPOC artists like Sean Garrison, whose work is shown in the next room over from the “Hidden Gems” exhibition. “When you do cataloging projects like this, unfortunately, you identify the strengths and the weaknesses. Now moving forward, we want to make sure to remedy that.”
“Hidden Gems” can be seen through July at the Hennepin History Museum. Visiting hours are Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (pay what you can). More information here.