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‘Driving Change’ panel: King inspired staff, cemented bonds to meet challenge of Weisman expansion

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of what will be 24 examples of leadership profiled in our yearlong series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today Bill Green, former superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools, comments on aspects of leadership presented in Lyndel Kings amazing vision, passion were keys to audacious WAMs completion.

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

Bill Green has never met Lyndel King. But he recognized a kindred leadership spirit when he read that she had borrowed the great St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” to inspire her staff at the Weisman Art Museum.

“I smiled knowingly at that reference because I recited the same speech when I met with the principals,” said Green, former Superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools. 

“What we were asking principals to do was beyond their comfort zone, and they were feeling a special sense of isolation because principals really do a lot of the work yet they are easily demonized,” Green said. “So it was an issue of inspiring them as we headed into unknown times.”

By recognizing the importance of inspiration at a crucial time for the Weisman, King demonstrated strong leadership instincts, Green said.

“People need to feel inspired when they are about to do something unprecedented and a little intimidating, and they have got to believe that their leader, through the clarity of vision and strength of character, is going to deliver them to a higher plane,” Green said. “So I was impressed with that.”

Leading through drawing together
Shakespeare’s words not only call upon people to deliver heroic efforts; they also speak in terms of a “band of brothers.” In other words, they aim to cement bonds between those engaged in the challenge at hand. They encourage people to believe in each other.

Lyndel King
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Lyndel King

“If you have been in combat, you know a lot of soldiers and Marines are there for flag and country and they are there because of the president’s orders,” Green said. “But at the fundamental core, a person is there because of the guy next to him.”

“You have to have that type of commitment to each other because ultimately nobody is going to be there to do the work except for the people who are doing the work,” he said. “It can be a very isolating unless you give them a language, a frame of reference, a vision. And that’s what she did.”

Leading students to art
Green also is a history professor at Augsburg College with a campus close to the Weisman at the U of M. College students he knows have been impressed by the Weisman’s art, he said.    

“I was struck by how students in 2011 could still be impacted by art, by something that was personal, reflective, meditative and immediate but in a way that did not make them feel the need for closure,” he said.

One of King’s effective strategies for leading students to the wonders of art, he said, was to set up the gallery so that “as soon as you come into the door, it’s the work, it’s the art that meets you instead of a grand lobby.”

Another impressive strategy was encouraging each student to form a relationship with a favorite work of art, to stop into the museum repeatedly and visit that piece.

“That was something I had never even considered, and I think it is incredibly invaluable for a number of reasons,” Green said.

A sense of continuity, a context
For one reason, he said, the relationship “allows students something they don’t always know they need in this new age: a sense of continuity, a context, a place where they can actually be reminded of who they were in their recent past.”

For many students, such a relationship can further the transition from childhood to adulthood.

 “They can have their own sense of personal history as a result of returning to the gallery to see a piece that moved them as students,” Green said.

Also subtly effective is the tactic King expressed this way: “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.’ “

That’s another step toward giving a student an identity that is independent from the parents who assumed they knew everything about the kid.

In essence, Green said, the student is saying, “There is something more to me here … this piece of art.” And the student invites the parents to partake of a mind-expanding experience.

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

“Those are elements that really touched me about the work and the gift that King provides this generation,” Green said. “The university has a gold mine over there if these kinds of impressions are what we decide is a part of a young person’s education.”

Beyond the utilitarian
On another plane, King, “clearly shows a very passionate and energetic type of leadership that I think one hears about but seldom actually sees,” Green said.

So much emphasis in this era is placed on utilitarian values, Green said, on practical, measurable considerations: “Is this going to pay off? Is this worth the institutional investment? How do we know if it’s successful? Show us the data. Quantify that!”

Because of the power of King’s vision, “she is able to get people beyond that, and in that sense her leadership is incredibly impressive,” Green said.

“As a former leader, oftentimes I had to be able to define work or initiatives or even decisions in terms of how I could show immediate benefit to the people impacted,” he said. “That’s really hard to do, and it’s a reason a lot of stuff doesn’t get done. … Clearly she has gone beyond that, and I think that’s because of the strength of her personality and character.”

Drawing on the Mississippi
Green is a U of M alumnus who crisscrossed the Mississippi River routinely between the law school on the West Bank and classes on the East Bank. King’s move to place the Weisman on a ledge overlooking the river was smart both strategically and symbolically, he said.

First, it placed the Weisman’s art collection at a central spot on campus where it couldn’t be missed by students.

It also commanded a spot in the heart of the Twin Cities, both literally and figuratively, said Green, whose academic expertise is Minnesota history.

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

“The Mississippi River is, in fact, the heart of the metro area, and it’s that for a reason,” Green said. “With that kind of legacy, I actually can see how the museum is in the center, and being in the center means that it belongs to everybody.”

The emotional quality of color
Green said he personally was led to new insights on life by reading about the transformation in King’s perception of color.

King said that an art history professor at the University of Kansas empowered her to see abstract art in a new light – to distinguish between color and the emotional quality of color, between gesture and the emotional quality of gesture.”

Green reacted, “That was an amazing way to think.”

In law and civil-rights classes Green teaches, he challenges students to distinguish between “that which is important, and that which only seems to be important.”

Green found new intellectual muscle for that exercise in the distinctions King learned to draw. They potentially apply well beyond the walls of an art museum, he said.

“I can relate to the distinction that she reported her professor making between color and the emotion of color,” Green said. “It was a new view, and I probably will use it in class.”

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