Monuments Men at the MIA: a director, a curator, and a mystery man

In 1942, Richard S. Davis was in Michigan, fresh out of Harvard. The Cranbrook Academy of Art had just opened and Davis (shown above in his office) had become its first curator. As he would later do at the MIA, Davis pushed Cranbrook to collect modern and contemporary art. And then, a little more than a year later, he was gone, mustered into World War II.


Richard S. Davis: Monuments Man in Tokyo, chief curator and director at the MIA.

Unlike most of the original 345 Monuments Men (and women), Davis did not spend the majority of his service in Europe or even in the midst of fighting. He first worked stateside as a diplomatic courier for the state department before being shipped to the Pacific, and by the time he actually began his Monuments Men duties it was January 1946, the war was over, and he was in Tokyo. This lesser-known outpost of the MFAA, or the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives division, secured cultural sites, catalogued artworks, and, like their colleagues in Europe, identified looted art,  taken by Japan during its wartime occupations. Before the year was out, Davis was back in America, looking to return to museum life.

He landed at the MIA as chief curator (things were less specialized then), a job he held for a decade before serving as director for another three years, until 1959. It was a new era—for art and, many hoped, for humanity—and Davis unabashedly steered the museum and wealthy new collectors in the Twin Cities—the Wintons, the Maslons, the MacMillans—toward modern art. He began his own collection as well and installed it in a modernist Lake Minnetonka home commissioned from Philip Johnson, the MOMA architecture director turned postwar über-architect. (In 1965, six years after Davis left town, the Wintons bought the house.)

Davis's home on Lake Minnetonka, designed by Philip Johnson.

Davis’s home on Lake Minnetonka, designed by Philip Johnson.

Davis’s proselytizing paid off. Putnam Dana McMillan, for one, bequeathed 24 modern masterpieces to MIA when he died in 1961, forming the core of the museum’s 20th-century collection. But the museum’s own modernist collecting came at a steep price, of course, one that Davis controversially met by selling off older, less fashionable works. Indeed, Davis’s entire tenure as director was dogged by distractions. In 1958, two highly valuable jade pieces were stolen from the MIA. A year later, the MIA was sued by a New York art dealer for not paying the full $115,000 for a sculpture supposedly made by a nephew of Leonardo da Vinci (the MIA claimed it was a fake and never displayed it). Davis resigned when the museum decided to hire its first president—a professional managerial type, not a curator—to whom Davis would report.

Harry Grier served as the Monuments Man bureau chief in Berlin before arriving at the MIA as assistant director in 1946.

Harry Grier served as the Monuments Men chief in Berlin before arriving at the MIA as assistant director in 1946.

Davis was not the only Monuments Man at the MIA at the time. Harry Grier had been working in the education department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when war was declared. He joined the army, landed in Normandy, and after the war ended in 1945 he was assigned to the MFAA. In fact, he became the acting chief of the Monuments Men, stationed in Berlin, and brokered the original agreement for art restitution among the Allied powers.

Grier came to the MIA around the same time as Davis, in 1946. He served as the assistant director, initiating education programs such as gallery talks and art classes, until 1951, when he returned to New York to work at the Frick Collection, becoming its director in 1964. An imposing man, with wavy blond hair and a solicitous manner, he was a friend of Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) in 1945 and 1947 and was a lover of the ensemble’s music director, Dimitri Mitropoulos. He was a regular among the intellectuals and wannabes on the Manhattan cocktail circuit, occasionally inviting those he fancied up to his art-filled apartment on the Upper East Side, where he lived across the hall from Pat Boone, the former teen idol and pious scold, who would have not approved of the impressionable young men coming up at Grier’s invitation to literally see his etchings.

Walter "Hutch" Huchthausen, an architecture professor at the University of Minnesota who was killed trying to protect an altarpiece during the war in Europe.

Walter “Hutch” Huchthausen, an architecture professor at the University of Minnesota who was killed trying to protect an altarpiece during the war in Europe.

There was supposedly a third Monuments Man at the MIA: Charles F. Gallagher. The Monuments Men Foundation, which has archived biographical information on many of the MFAA men and women, suggested a link between Gallagher, the MIA, and Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. But the Fogg couldn’t find any connection and neither could the MIA. He certainly was a Monuments Man, serving, like Davis, in Japan after the war. But once discharged, he appears never to have worked directly with art again. He became a historian and cultural commentator, living in Tangier and writing books about North Africa, Hawaii, and other far-flung places, a kind of ivory tower Michener. It seems his Monuments Men service was an anomaly: an Army memo from a man who had lobbied for Gallagher’s acceptance into the MFAA—only to later be rejected himself—complains that in fact Gallagher had no particular knowledge of art.

There were several other Monuments Men from Minnesota, if not the MIA. Perhaps the most legendary was Walter Huchthausen, known as Hutch among his Army buddies. An architecture professor at the University of Minnesota, Hutch died trying to save an altarpiece in Germany, a story that figured prominently in the Monuments Men book and perhaps inspired the most dramatic scene in the film (we won’t spoil it further).