On the skyway level of the Thrivent building in downtown Minneapolis, amid a coffee shop and a guard station and throngs passing through, is a simple brown door. Behind it is a kind of heaven.
Rembrandt. Albrecht Dürer. Picasso. They’re all here, among some 1,200 prints and a small number of Old Master paintings, in the Thrivent Collection of Religious Art. A gallery of rotating exhibitions is open to the public—Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., as though it were any other working stiff. To stumble across it, and let the door close on the lattes and lunch-seekers outside, is to slip away into a quieter, parallel world of spirituality.
A little more than 15 years ago, Joanna Reiling Lindell was in her early 20s, fresh out of the University of St. Thomas, when she began to take over the curatorship of the collection from its founder, the Rev. Richard Hillstrom. A Lutheran pastor in St. Paul, Hillstrom had traveled and collected art for decades—saving his modest pay, negotiating with artists on the streets of Paris, sometimes waiting years to obtain a piece that had caught his eye—before advising Lutheran Brotherhood (now Thrivent) about starting its own collection in 1981. He acquired some Old Master paintings for the financial company early on before concentrating on prints.
“He was a typically frugal, Swedish-American pastor,” Reiling Lindell says, “and he told the company we could get a lot more for our money if we bought works on paper. But also, we’re a financial institution—we’re in the business of being thoughtful with money.”
His instincts proved valuable. Hillstrom’s first purchase for Thrivent was a crucifixion scene by George Bellows, better known for his gritty urban scenes from the early 20th century, such as A Stag at Sharkey’s. He then managed to acquire two of the most famous prints from the most famous printer of them all, Albrecht Dürer: Knight, Death, and the Devil, and St. Jerome in His Study.
By the time Reiling Lindell came along, Hillstrom was ready to pass the baton. “He was in his 80s then and hadn’t found anyone to take over,” Reiling Lindell says. “About halfway through my interview with him, I realized he was giving me the job. He even said something like, ‘When I see you on Monday….'” It was a right time, right place kind of thing.
Reiling Lindell has spread the word and reach of the collection, loaning out works and often entire exhibitions, mostly to college and university museums. “I used to hear this a lot, that our collection is a hidden gem,” she says. “It’s a little flattering, and there’s a cache to that, but I decided early on that I want to hear that less and less. I want more people to say, ‘I’ve heard of your collection.'”
When Tom Rassieur, Mia’s head of Prints and Drawings, mentioned a few years ago that Mia would be assembling an exhibition of Luther-related works around the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (“Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation,” on display at Mia through January 15), Reiling Lindell spearheaded Thrivent’s generous support. She also happily volunteered any relevant art. Ultimately a handful of important prints, including a couple portraits of Luther, made their way across town to Mia.
“It’s what art history should be,” Reiling Lindell says of the exhibition. “Telling the story of the period, including the daily lives of people at that time. We are really thrilled and proud to be part of it.”
With help from her two assistants, Reiling Lindell is now putting together Thrivent’s own show related to the Reformation anniversary and working on a book, Inspiring Generosity, that offers scriptural context to 40 prints evoking benevolence in the collection. Most corporate art collections are the decorative type, or a highly personal legacy begun by an art-minded executive. It’s exceedingly rare, Reiling Lindell says, to find a corporate collection with a historic focus, much less a mission.
“I’m deeply passionate about this collection because it connects people,” she says. “Looking at our shared history as humans, we can think about the future. If you can get people in the door, magical things can happen inside of themselves.”
The exhibition “Curious Creatures: Animals on Paper” is now on view in the Thrivent gallery at 625 Fourth Ave. S., Minneapolis, skyway level.