History of the M’s Collection

The development of Minnesota Museum of American Art’s (the M) collection is an interesting story marked by grand dreams, tumultuous times, and shrewd networking. It twists and turns, according to the fascinations of collectors dedicated to building a topnotch collection in St. Paul, as well as ambitious artists, administrators, and directors. Operating under seven names and from more than 13 different venues over its 117 years, one needs a road map to keep up with the evolution and whereabouts of the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Admittedly, while settling on a location and mission might have been the M’s central challenges over the course of its development, the ebb and flow of its collections is also clearly connected to that peripatetic history.

It is fitting, then, that the beginning of the M’s collection is tied to one of its locations: 476 Summit Avenue, the sandstone mansion that transformed the St. Paul School of Art into a gallery and then, ultimately, an art center. Sold to the school in 1939 by Mr. and Mrs. Roger Shepard, the library of the house was given the first accession number, 39.01.01, marking the moment when art collecting would become an official activity of this dynamic art school. While the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art spent most of the 1940s developing its exhibition program, mounting ambitious exhibitions in a whirl of activity seems dizzying today, it accepted gifts from patrons and artists and slowly entered the fray of collecting.

A significant bequest of Chinese jade in 1947 inaugurated the gallery’s focus on Asian art and, for the first time, brought a museum-quality collection into the Summit Avenue mansion. This was the same year than an architect working with the Walker Art Center, Malcolm E. Lein, crossed the Mississippi to become the gallery’s first non-artist director and initiated a slew of programs and events that would bring focus to the collection ambitions of the organization. Minnesota artists of all ilks – painters, sculptors, craftspeople in all manner of media, illustrators, and architectural draftsmen – had a place in the exhibition programs and sales opportunities at the gallery. Biennials of craft and drawing drew thousands of artists from across the country and established the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art (and its successors, the St. Paul Art Center and the Minnesota Museum of Art) as a leader in American innovation in the arts. While the collections of Old Masters, African and Southeast Asian art, and modern European and American artists flooded the gallery, and later the collection, it was the art of Minnesotans – whether born or bred, or newly immigrated – that distinguished the burgeoning collections of St. Paul’s upstart art museum.

The major redefinition of the museum’s collection occurred in the mid- to late-1990s, when over 60 percent of the collection was deaccessioned to herald the museum’s revamped focus on American art. From its maximum of about 10,500 artworks in the early 1990s to approximately 3,800 a decade later, the newly named Minnesota Museum of American Art focused on works that embodied the unique spirit of American visual art, from 19th century landscapes and portraits to artworks that expressed the multicultural concerns and directions of the late 20th- and early 21st-century. This turn toward American art as a stated focus of the museum began with the 1982 acquisition of a major painting by Robert Henri (the 1906 Modiste of Madrid) and other outstanding early 20th-century American works by artists such as Childe Hassam, John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, and many others. The acquisition of a significant collection of Edward S. Curtis photographs in 1986 signaled the museum’s entry into collection American photographs – a passion of the museum’s then director, M. James Czarniecki III.

But, while interest in assembling a great collection of American art accelerated from the 1980s on, it was the focus on Minnesota art – and those artists who lived, worked, labored in, and loved this region – that uniquely marked the collections of the M from its very beginning. Strengthened in 1966 with a major gift of 357 works by the St. Paul-born sculptor Paul Manship, this concentration on our artists gives the museum’s collection its unique flavor and historical vitality. Connections with Minnesota’s strong craft communities and its Native American (and especially Ojibwe) cultures, as well as work by local artists from professionals to amateurs, all accentuate the vibrant discourse that emanates from the collections of the Minnesota Museum of American Art.

Currently approximately 4,500 works strong, the collections of the M are still growing, as is the museum. Before its grand (re)opening in December 2018, the M had operated from a storefront gallery, the Project Space, at the corner of 4th and Robert Streets in downtown St. Paul’s historic Pioneer Endicott buildings. But aside from that modest space, both the museum and its collection went without a permanent home for more than decade. And when the M didn’t have a brick-and-mortar space to call its own, this great collection served as the institution’s standard bearer, the life-blood that connected the rich history and solid legacy of this august museum to audiences of the present, as well as the future. It’s a proud moment, for the museum, the city, and our state, to see these remarkable artworks, held for so long in public trust, once again restored, and in such grand fashion, to public view.