Once at MIA: Art on the move

In 1967, a semi-tractor trailer was loaded with a curated, museum-quality exhibition and sent out on the highways and byways of Minnesota. Occasionally, it would return to port, refill with art, and hit the blacktop again. Its 1968–69 exhibition of early American painters made 48 stops across the state, including the Red Lake Indian Reservation and Stillwater State Prison, and nearly 31,000 people came out to see it—more than pass through a small exhibition at the MIA even today.

In a few years, it spawned a satellite bus, called the Inner-city Artmobile, which in hindsight reveals the myopia of the museum’s earnest intentions—it was pretty much what the name implies, bringing art a whole 20 blocks or so from the museum to inner-city neighborhoods that must have seemed much farther away. It didn’t last long.

The original Artmobile lasted until 1973, when its indefatigable curator, Michael Oker, was desperately writing Georgia O’Keeffe to secure paintings for an exhibition. In his letters, Oker seems like the perfect person for the job: irreverent, adaptable, caring little for the formality of museum life. “There’s no way in hell I would even attempt to use a copy,” he tells O’Keeffe, gently complaining that her originals are all tied up with universities seeking to give her honorary degrees.

In exasperation, Oker threatens to follow O’Keeffe around with the Artmobile as she collects these degrees, but ultimately asks for an audience at her home: “I may be in the area,” he says. O’Keeffe, perhaps the perfect artist for the Artmobile, replies with just three winking lines: “Come by if you have time. It is too late to have that Artmobile follow me about the universities. I’ve given up collecting degrees.”

Watch for more Once at MIA flashbacks every Monday at MIA Stories.

Top photo: The Artmobile in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 1967. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.