After 11 years of directing the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Kaywin Feldman is leaving soon, to become the director of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. The staff and budget and scrutiny will be much greater, the snow much less.
It’s the culmination of 27 years of leading art museums across the country, starting in Fresno, California, a career she says has been like earning a “self-taught MBA” under the tutelage of dozens of board chairs, people who “maybe had a sick child at home or wanted to put their own PJs on” but instead were at her side in a constant stream of late-night events. “How lucky I am,” she says.
I recently sat down with her to hear the impressions she’ll be taking east—the things she’ll be thinking about among the cherry blossoms, long after she leaves.
After 11 years here, have you found a use for snow yet?
When I first arrived, winter created all these new questions for me, like snow boot etiquette. What do I do with them when I arrive at someone’s home? Do I leave them at the door? When do I change my shoes? Anyway, someone once called snow “the unnecessary freezing of water” [it was comedian Carl Reiner], and I still pretty much agree with that.
What first impressions of Mia have stayed with you?
I don’t want to work for a museum that charges admission, ever again [Feldman’s previous employers, the Fresno Art Museum and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, charge admission]. I had always assumed that free admission is about aiding low-income visitors. But even people who can afford it will think differently about running in for 20 minutes to see that Vermeer if they know it won’t cost them anything. We want museum-going to be habitual, and free admission is a big part of that.
Which exhibitions were most memorable for you?
I loved working on the Habsburgs and the Martin Luther exhibitions, partly because they were real collaborations with colleagues abroad. But also, there’s nothing more fun than shopping in another museum’s galleries. To go through and say, “What about the Vermeer, can we have that? Ooh, I like that Rembrandt!”
The Guillermo del Toro exhibition was a passion project of mine. I’m happy to have come into contact with Guillermo and learn what a generous person he is and how passionate he is about inspiring young people with his craft. “Power and Beauty” was something else entirely that will forever be a career highlight—probably a career highlight not to be repeated, due to the challenge and expense. If I’d known at the outset how expensive and difficult it would be, I wouldn’t have done it, and that would have been too bad. I’m glad we did it.
The Philando Castile show was a lasting project for us, I think. Brian Stevenson says we have to get proximate to other people to create change in America, and getting to know Valerie Castile was a great gift for me. I feel I’m a better person for knowing her and seeing her leadership and strength and conviction—how lucky I am, because in other circumstances our paths would not have crossed.
You had been intrigued by Guillermo del Toro for a long time before meeting him. What was that like?
I remember being in the house where he keeps his collections, which he calls Bleak House, with people from Mia and elsewhere. And there’s Edgar Allan Poe, sitting on a chair next to me with a book—one of Guillermo’s life-size mannequin figures. And I keep looking over and engaging him in the conversation, because it would be rude not to talk to Edgar Allan Poe!
Guillermo has two houses and you can go from one backyard to the other, and so we left Bleak House to go to the house where he lives—they each have a little pool outside and a sliding glass door. And from the outside you can see someone sitting on the sofa, her head from behind, the hair a little tousled and matted, and you come around and it’s Linda Blair from The Exorcist! Her eyes are crazed and it’s really horrific, and I think, when it’s 8 o’clock at night and he goes from one house to the other, how can you not be scared?
Our new branding was a big part of the birthday year. Are you happy with how that’s turned out?
So much of our work here at Mia in the last decade has been has been wrestling with the question of what it means to be a beloved art institution in the 21st century. We have a weight and a dignity and a gravitas. We were founded by a very serious group of philanthropists with a big vision and incredibly generous trustees who have helped grow the collection. Andwe want to be accessible and contemporary and occasionally have some fun. The branding really captures that. And the master plan we just adopted is a great symbol of that. When we announced that we wanted to move the main entrance back to the McKim, Mead, & White building, people said the neoclassical façade feels stuffy and elitist, more like a bank building, and we disagree with that. You can take that grand entrance and make it warm and contemporary—they’re not mutually exclusive. I think we’ve done a great job of striking that kind of balance.
Do you feel your job has changed in these 11 years, along with museums in general?
A seismic shift has occurred in museums, just recently. This realization that the 20th century was the century of growth, all about getting more and more art, more collections, more space. We thought more galleries would produce more visitors—that was the philosophy of museums across America in the 20th century. Now growth is much less important, and it’s more about how we take care of this huge collection, and realizing that what brings people in is what you do with the collection, how you animate it and interpret it and connect people with the art.
I think of Bruce Dayton, a trustee for 74 years—most of the 20th century. And for Bruce it was all about getting that work of art, and once you got it, you hung it on the wall. You might have to pay a few guards but that was it. And now there’s a fleet of people doing work before the art even comes in the building, and all the data around the work of art, all the scholarship and history and information to be entered, and then we need to interpret and research it and bring people in to see it—it’s a huge financial machine. That’s the change we’re moving into now.
What do you feel will be the core of encyclopedic museums like this one, the things that won’t change—or is everything up for grabs?
The work of art won’t change. An artwork has its own integrity that museums will never disturb. In 20 or 50 years, people will still be able to go into their community museum and sit in a gallery and have a one on one experience with a work of art. What will change is everything around it.
Museums have moved to being more focused on the visitor and less about doing the work for ourselves. There used to be a much greater concentration on working for other colleagues in the field and writing for an audience of colleagues. During that period, museums really delegated the visitor to the education department—and bully for them because they carried the weight of the visitor for American museums for so long. And when I arrived we started seeing that we’re all responsible for the visitor and making sure the visitor experience is as high as it can be.
What would you tuck in your suitcase if you could?
I would take the entire Japanese collection. I had not worked with a Japanese collection before working here and it’s been a great joy to see the collection grow so substantially thanks to Bill Clark and Mary Griggs Burke. And of course I have great memories of Eike Schmidt’s time here at Mia, the many terrific acquisitions that he made, like the St. Benedict of Palermo sculpture.
I’m also proud of working with the team in Prints and Drawings, being able to acquires three of the greatest, large-scale prints of the Renaissance: Titian’s parting of the Red Sea, the bird’s-eye view of Venice, and the Triumphal Arch of Maximilian. To be able to acquire all three of them is extraordinary.
An old favorite to tuck in would be our Goya painting, the Self-Portrait with Dr. Arietta. After spending time with the files on that work, I realized that lots of medical conventions have put it on the front cover of their convention brochures—they see it as an advertisement for the healing power of medicine. I think about it as an advertisement for the healing power of love.
I know you have a collection of reliquary arms and other body parts—have you managed to add to that in your time here?
One thing I have added is my own poor man’s Brancusi—the head that they model crash test dummy heads on. It’s really cool-looking. I was going to do a talk at Yale around this time about the fractured body—it was a little self-indulgent, because I want to know why I’m so fascinated by fragmented body parts. But it’s not just me, because you find them across the art of all cultures, actually. My plans changed, so it will have to wait for another day.