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New art meets old masters: a conversation with MIA curator Elizabeth Armstrong

Armstrong is operating at the curatorial edge, working with colleagues to help redefine the traditional, “encyclopedic” art museum.

Elizabeth Armstrong is the first curator of contemporary art in the history of the MIA.
Courtesy of the MIA

The Line

There’s a remarkable new show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that deploys works from the museum’s collection, plus a few borrowed items, in a way that may surprise museumgoers. Sacred juxtaposes deeply traditional items of religious art — a holy water stoup, priests’ robes, icons, Qur’an pages — with edgy contemporary works, like a gray felt suit created by conceptual-art icon Joseph Beuys, a stunning faux suit of armor by Korean artist Do-Ho Suh, and images by that ambivalent Catholic, Andy Warhol. It’s an effort to probe what the sacred might mean in a postmodern world that’s inherited the entire globe’s religious images but is also struggling with new definitions of the spiritual life. Its curation was led by Elizabeth Armstrong, the MIA’s first-ever curator of contemporary art.

Armstrong, who spent 14 years at the Walker Art Center, then worked at museums in California before joining the MIA staff in 2008, is operating at the curatorial edge, working with colleagues to help redefine the traditional, “encyclopedic” art museum. And that involves finding new ways to, in her words, “animate” our ideas about art old and new. An important part of that effort is creating new (and sometimes unexpected) connections with the wider Twin Cities community. We talked with her on the eve of the opening of Sacred.

The Line: Elizabeth Armstrong, you are the first curator of contemporary art in the history of the MIA, I believe.

Elizabeth Armstrong: Yes. The museum had collected contemporary art, and in its photography and print departments it certainly was always collecting contemporary art along with other things. But there had never been a curator in charge of it. There had never been a role designed for contemporary art at the MIA.

What interested me so much about the possibility of coming here was that here’s this big, encyclopedic museum with these amazing historical/cultural collections. How could we shape a contemporary art program here? I didn’t want to just start collecting contemporary art. I really wanted to explore how contemporary art and artists and contemporary curatorial strategies would be part of this museum, which under [director] Kaywin [Feldman] was looking to change its whole connection with the community.

A contemporary object in an unexpected place

The MIA has always had a strong connection with the community, but a lot of these beautiful objects from the past in the museum can seem a little obscure. We’re contemporary people, after all; we live right now. So I’ve been playing with a lot of ideas about how we can work with contemporary art here. One of them is just the insertion of a contemporary object in an unexpected place — like a coat by Joseph Beuys in a whole section of historical and traditional sacred garments in the Sacred show. My argument is that if you put a piece of contemporary art by a piece of historical art, without even interpreting it you have opened it up to some meaning.

Of course the Beuys coat stands out! What’s it doing in the middle of all these beautiful robes and ecclesiastical garments? There are several answers; one is that many contemporary artists think of themselves as shamans. That’s just one tiny example, but the possibilities are so different in an encyclopedic museum than in a contemporary museum because you have a much more diverse audience already.

Two kinds of museum

The Line: Tell us a little more about the differences, as you see them, between a museum like the Walker, where you worked, and the MIA type of museum.

Elizabeth Armstrong: People come to encyclopedic museums, the big traditional ones, for a much wider variety of reasons, so these museums tend to have a more general audience than contemporary museums. The contemporary art museums’ audience tends to be younger, edgier, and cultivated already, aware of the material. I really do believe that having a more contemporary program and a contemporary feeling around the museum is offering a comfortable place for more people and younger people.

Ultimately, any museum should, of course, be presenting great art. But what does that mean? Part of what that means is asking whether the art is relevant to people’s lives or not, whether it informs them, whether it captures their curiosity and makes them wonder about the bigger world or their own issues.

Tradition and animation

At this museum there are wonderful opportunities to do that because people feel kind of comfortable with historical objects, and yet if you see an historical object in the context of a contemporary work — if we put a [Takashi] Murakami piece next to a traditional Japanese suit of armor, say — you see that this contemporary artist isn’t just being outrageous. He’s really drawing on traditions of Japanese culture but he’s looking to the new digital world of commerce and marketing too.

These are the questions that we’re talking about. How does a work of art meaningfully engage a visitor? Are there other ways of doing it than a label on the wall? Are there other ways of animating it? Animating is the best word I can think of.

One of the things we’re doing that you usually only see in contemporary art museums is inviting artists to do installations, to work with this historical material. For Sacred, an artist in the community really wanted to do something with one of our most beautiful and best-known Buddhist sculptures, a Guanyin that for years had a place in our Buddhist sculpture court. The artist really wanted to move it so that you would look at it in a different way. She wanted to give it its own room. And, furthermore, she wanted to create seating and even some sound elements that suggest the power of this deity of compassionate mercy for Western Buddhists today.

Now when you go in there, you may see and hear visitors saying prayers and chanting. And the work itself is just spectacularly lit and, to me, it looks completely different and has a different impact in this setting.

Art that’s connected

The Line: Is this sense of dialogue between older art and contemporary art informing your choices in acquiring contemporary art as well as your strategies for displaying it?

Elizabeth Armstrong: Yes. What I have focused on, and I think it’s going to become clearer and clearer as the collection grows, is collecting works of art that are contemporary but are absolutely connected to pieces of history — showing connections to cultural roots, directly or by disjunction.

So, for instance, we’ve been wanting a major piece by the Korean artist Do-Ho Suh. He makes these really powerful robes that recall traditional Korean armor. When you get close to them you realize they’re made entirely out of soldiers’ dogtags. So it’s a powerful statement about war on one level and this impressive costume on the other level. And, of course, we have a lot of Asian robes in our collection. I wanted that piece because I knew that Suh was an artist who’s thinking about traditional forms but using them to really stir up conversation about war.

This is truly a global collection, with all these different areas and departments ranging from Chinese to African to Native American art and beyond. And contemporary art is now truly global as well. Contemporary artists are pulling all these strands together. There’s a kind of global fusion aesthetics, and the way we think about art is different today because of good and bad aspects of globalization. The most obscure parts of the world are generating artists who, because of the internet and travel, etcetera, can connect to the rest of the world — what’s going on right now — and yet still bring elements of their own rich traditions with them.

Local motions?

The Line: How does being located in this community, the Twin Cities, impact your work?

Elizabeth Armstrong: The power of local affinities and local thinking is really more and more something that we want to connect with, of course, because we want to be a resource in the community.

To give you an example, one of the things we’re exploring and experimenting with in the Sacred show is creating a kind of open, kiva-like space on the ground level of the Target wing, where there could be really casual meetings, sessions, activities. This isn’t set up yet but we’re looking at, say, every Saturday at 3 p.m. during the winter inviting people from the community who have lots to say and share about the sacred.

The Line: There’s a lot of energy around the sacred here — we’ve got multiple seminaries, the world’s biggest theological bookstore nearby, a rich Buddhist community, mosques in nearly every neighborhood, a beautiful Hindu temple, deep traditions of Native, Christian, and New Age spirituality …

Elizabeth Armstrong: Absolutely. There’s a woman in town who’s an expert on labyrinths and the spiritual action of walking. She’s not just going to give a talk about it — she has this big labyrinth rug and she will roll it out and lead us in walking the labyrinth. I can imagine presentations of different spiritual activities related to healing. You’re right, there’s a very big interest in this locally — and internationally too.

I don’t have a formal program yet, but we’re talking with people. People are just coming out of the woodwork who want to do a variety of things, including laughing yoga! I think Krista Tippett’s going to do her show [On Being] here, and I’m really excited about that. One of the installations in Sacred is 44 pages from an Ethiopian Christian manuscript. The Loft, it turns out, is working with a group of local Ethiopian writers, and they’re going to do a whole program around it.

I think we’re all really interested in connecting with people here who are already thinking about these things, and who want to explore how artworks can inform their thinking and activity. We want to provide a forum, a “living room,” for that conversation.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.