The M Blog

The M Blog is an online space for us and for you — artists, museum staff and curators, guest writers, and community contributors — to discuss issues and ideas related to the many experiences of being American today.

An Illustrated History of the M

On May 24, 1894, between an announcement of a party at Como Park and a building permit for an apartment block on St. Peter, the St. Paul Globe noted that the St. Paul School of Fine Arts had been incorporated at the Secretary of State’s office. The organization’s mission was quoted as “the mutual improvement of its members by advancement in the study, knowledge and love of art.” Membership at the new art school cost $3—the modern day equivalent of somewhere in the vicinity of $85.

Over the next 122 years, members of the organization that would eventually be known as the Minnesota Museum of American Art would make their home in 12 different buildings, under seven different names. The mission and aims of the organization shifted, too, over the years, evolving to keep up with the needs of the community, larger trends in fine arts instruction and exhibition, and – of course – what was going on across the river in that large Beaux Arts campus at 3rd Avenue and 24th Street. After a few itinerant years, the Minneapolis Institute of Art established a permanent home on Washburn Fair Oaks Park, where it has remained since 1915.

The M’s story, as far as real estate is concerned, is not like that. Part of the story of the M and its precedent organizations is a tale of movement across space and time. Though the names and places shifted, that initial charter about the study, knowledge, and love of art has always guided the movement. The 12 different sites of the museum track both the development of that mission, and the story of the city the museum serves.

That September of 1894, the St. Paul School of Fine Arts held its first series of classes for its 40 members in a studio at the Metropolitan Hotel. Located at the present-day site of the 317 on Rice Park Event Center, across from the Xcel Energy Center – that’s the old Minnesota Club house with the hockey flags hanging outside – the Metropolitan was built in 1870. Its studio penthouse, the Twilight Club, had been a hangout for the city’s elite in its first few decades, a place to meet for drinks, cigars, and intellectual discussion.

By 1894, when the School of Fine Arts moved in, the hotel was a quarter-century old, and what had seemed glamorous in frontier times seemed shoddy by the sophisticated standards of the 1890s. In lieu of a permanent home, though, it worked well for the school for a time. The hotel’s old studio, with its high ceilings and abundant natural light, made an optimal setting for life drawing classes and lectures.

By 1895, however, the studio at the Metropolitan had become too small for the exhibitions and lectures the School was holding. Attendance regularly numbered in the low hundreds and garnered even more interest – “it was impossible to issue a general invitation” to the public, lamented one newspaper profile, “as the audience room was so small.” By 1897, the School had moved two blocks west to Seven Corners. The Metropolitan was demolished several years later in 1913. St. Paul has a reputation as being the twin that preserved its old buildings more diligently, but that reputation is only half-earned. The Metropolitan is the first of a half-dozen buildings which housed the organization that are no longer standing.

 The Metropolitan Hotel, now the site of the 317 on Rice Park Event Center, was home to the M (then known as the St. Paul School of Fine Arts) from 1894-1895. Illustration by the author.

The mandate of the School was still, in 1897 and the years following, focused on the instruction of fine arts, and the buildings in which the school set up shop reflected those needs. The Moore Building was mixed-use block at the western corner of present-day Kellogg Boulevard and West 7th Street. Along with the School, it also housed apartments mostly inhabited by single men and ladies, a pharmacy and dentist’s office, and a School of Dress Cutting. This seems like an odd mix, but it’s one that spoke to the School’s mission of bringing a “refining and elevating influence upon the community.” In this environment, men and women attended morning, afternoon, and evening classes, either for their own recreation or to build a portfolio and head East to make a career in New York or Paris. The emphasis was on instruction and the work created, not exhibition. A 1904 article did note, with some wistfulness, that for all the School’s achievements, the whole enterprise was “handicapped in its work by the fact that St. Paul does not possess a hall suitable for an art exhibit of any size.”

That lack of space was addressed with the School’s the next move, in 1904, to the brand new St. Paul Auditorium on the third and fourth floors. Here, the School could burnish both its populist credentials, by coexisting with the popular theatrical entertainment of the day, and its cultural credentials by having dedicated space for exhibitions.

The M’s story is a restless one. It’s a tale of movement across space and time. Though the names and places shifted, however, that initial charter about the study, knowledge, and love of art has always guided the movement.

The mandate of the School broadened at about this time, too. Beginning in 1909, the School had outgrown its early organizational capacities and was absorbed into the St. Paul Institute (the predecessor organization of the Science Museum of Minnesota), becoming the St. Paul Institute School of Art. The Institute, then a few years old and backed by the city’s civic institutions, focused on industrial arts, commerce, handicraft, home economics, and education. In this environment, post-secondary students could study not only fine art, but a wide array of related fields like ceramics, textile design, illustration, photography, printmaking, and industrial design. Compared to the snobby, elitist longhairs over in Minneapolis at the Fine Arts Society, the Institute was a “People’s University,” a democratic organization that believed, in the words of a catalog from the Institute, “all arts can be elevated to the plane of fine arts.”

The School of Art within the Institute went on hiatus during World War I, however, and it wasn’t until 1927 that the organization was constituted by a group of St. Paul artists with a new mission and a series of new spaces. Organized in 1924 and established in 1927, the St. Paul School of Art had a highly modern, progressive outlook. Instruction – not academic, but with “freer methods” that were “entirely in sympathy with modern art” – was a priority, but so was the exhibition of artwork. It was an itinerant few years for the School. The group’s earliest home was in an unremarkable six-story commercial structure, called the Court Block at 4th and Cedar, where they shared space with a number of attorneys’ offices and the city’s first African-American newspaper, The Appeal. In 1926, the School moved to a space kitty-corner from the M’s present-day location, which boasted skylights – something the organization hadn’t had since the Metropolitan. Two years later, the School moved into an even larger space on 6th, between Cedar and Wabasha, where it remained until 1932 and which allowed hosting both large exhibitions and classes. None of these buildings are still standing.

The Depression hit enrollment hard, as it did many other cultural institutions in the Twin Cities. In 1932, the School moved out of the downtown core for the first time. It would be more than three decades before the institution would return downtown.

The Moore building at Seven Corners. Home to the M (then called the St. Paul School of Fine Arts) from 1895 – 1904. Illustration by the author.

The Haynes Photography Studio was located on Selby Avenue at Virginia. Frank Haynes had been a photographer for the Northern Pacific Railroad and Yellowstone National Park in the 1880s, two commissions that made him nationally famous and somewhat wealthy. In the 1890s, he built an elegant, three-story photo studio he occupied until the 1910s. By the 1930s, it was a bit run-down, but the facilities and the general spaciousness were a good fit for the School. It stayed there throughout the Depression, until 1939. At this location, the School operated, showing exhibitions and its growing collections, and running a “picture library,” free to the public and a sort of callback to the space’s original use as a photographer’s studio. This space, too, is long gone.

A major gift by two supporters of the school, Roger and Mary Shepherd, allowed the institution to once again expand its focus, and prompted another name change. A Romanesque mansion on Summit Avenue, the Griggs House was built in 1883. The Shepherds installed a skylight and donated the refurbished building with the hope that, for the first time, the institution would be able to acquire artwork and maintain a permanent collection, in addition to having much expanded exhibition space. When it moved into the Griggs House in 1939, the organization became known as the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art.

The Gallery and School of Art remained at the Summit Avenue address for 25 years, from 1939 to 1964. (In the 25 years prior to 1939, for the sake of contrast, the organization had five different homes.) The Gallery and School of Art coordinated major exhibitions with the Walker and the MIA, juried exhibitions from which it acquired work by major Minnesota artists, and accepted donations from collectors of works by Old Masters and young Americans. It advertised classes both “vocational and avocational,” for both hobbyists and art appreciators, as well as those training for a career.

In 1964, the Gallery and School of Art moved back downtown and, for the first time, into a building specifically designed and constructed to serve as an arts center, paid for through a municipal bond. The School’s old 1900s-era partner, the St. Paul Institute, had morphed as well into a few different iterations in the intervening 60 years. By now a fully-fledged science museum, the School of Art would join it in a newly constructed St. Paul-Ramsey Arts and Sciences Center (until very recently the home of McNally Smith College of Music). Here, the organization became known as the St. Paul Art Center. The new, modern facility had ample space for the large art collection the Gallery and School of Art had slowly amassed over a quarter-century years, much of which had previously been stored off-site. Better yet, the entire new facility was designed with both exhibition and instruction in mind. “No longer would the office be housed in an adapted kitchen,” wrote Susan Clayton in an overview of the organization.

Excellent as their new home was, the organization’s leadership was interested in a larger, dedicated space solely for use by the art school and gallery in downtown St. Paul. By 1969, the Center’s educational offerings were overshadowed not only by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, but by the boom in other undergraduate studio art programs at local liberal arts colleges. Once again, the organization changed its course – and name. It was during this period that the organization de-emphasized both education and its sense as a St. Paul-specific organization, in order to focus primarily on a wide range of exhibitions. That year, the St. Paul Art Center became the Minnesota Museum of Art, aligning itself with the whole state and not simply the city. It moved in the Jemne Building, the modernist gem Women’s Club on Kellogg, overlooking the Mississippi River. It remained there from 1969 to 1993, nearly as long as the old School of Art had been on Summit Avenue.

In 1993, the Jemne Buildng was sold. The previous year, the organization had made its ultimate name change to the Minnesota Museum of American Art. The new organization also eliminated the last vestiges of its educational mission. It was now solely an exhibiting and collecting museum, divested of less significant and international portions of its collection, focusing exclusively on American art. The museum made its home in the Landmark Center – a prominent St. Paul location it shared with numerous other organizations and businesses. In some sense, the Landmark had more in common with the organization’s early homes, like the Moore Building or the Auditorium, than the Griggs Mansion or Jemne Building, in the sense that the museum shared space (or, perhaps fought it out) with a diverse variety of other tenants. The Minnesota Museum of American Art remained at Landmark Center from 1979 through 2004 – another 25 years.

After an interregnum at the West Publishing building for several years in the 2000s – a building which ultimately met the same fate of each of the museum’s homes prior to the Griggs House – the M is now located in the historic Pioneer Endicott building. The museum is a few blocks away from most of its previous homes, from the sky-lighted space on Third Street in the 1920s to the Jemne Building in the ’70s and ’80s. Like nearly all of those prior spaces, the new M is carved out of an adapted building, making use of light, material, and location to highlight all kinds of artwork. And as in all the sites that came before, for all the organization’s history of change in location, fortunes, and focus, the M will remain a place where the people of St. Paul and Minnesota can go for, as the charter stated back in the 1890s, “the study, knowledge, and love of art.”

 Illustration by the author

Andy Sturdevant is an artist and writer living in Minneapolis. He has written about art, history and culture for a variety of Twin Cities-based publications and websites. For several years, Andy wrote a weekly column on neighborhoods, art, history, and architecture in Minneapolis-St. Paul for MinnPost. His first book, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, was published by Coffee House Press in 2013. He also makes art and creates public projects. Some of this work has been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Flaten Art Museum at St. Olaf College, as well as in museums, galleries, and spaces in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, and elsewhere. He was born in Ohio, raised in Kentucky, and has lived in Minneapolis since 2005.