Once at Mia: A deity descends on Minneapolis

MIA 1; Early Museum HistoryThe god arrived in 1917 with unusual restraint. Boxed, braced, on a bed of what looks like shavings or straw. The Minneapolis Institute of Art had been open only a couple of years. The ancient black marble statue, representing the popular incarnation of Buddha variously known as Guanyin, Kuan-yin, or Avalokitesvara, was one of the museum’s first great coups.

Mia has sometimes advertised the statue as its first Asian acquisition, and perhaps it was. But a handbook to the objects on display in 1917 lists a couple of rooms’ worth of “Oriental objects,” from a Chinese horse’s head to ancient Chinese jades, and no Guanyin. Indeed, the great gallerist and collector Charles Freer donated several Thai Buddhist sculptures in 1914, before the museum even opened.

The deity today, on view in Mia's second-floor Buddhist sculpture court (gallery G200).

The deity today, on view in Mia’s second-floor Buddhist sculpture court (gallery G200).

Yet Guanyin has arguably won the popularity contest. An announcement in Mia’s Bulletin in 1918 says it was “discovered at Shih-An [in China] in 1909,” predicted that it “will give distinction to the Institute and materially increase the attractiveness of the Chinese gallery,” and declared “We know of few pieces of sculpture of this period that equal it in importance or appeal.” It has rarely been out of a place of prominence since.