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Once at MIA: Two letters that built a museum

The MIA began with two letters. One proferred the land, the other the starter money. And within four years, the whole thing was built.

On January 3, 1911, Clinton Morrison wrote a letter to the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts, explaining his ideas for how the proposed art museum should be situated in the city. Three pages, typed, single-spaced. Morrison had followed his father into the lumber business, then railroads, then banking. His father had been the first and third mayor of Minneapolis, but he himself was not a particularly public figure. In an early volume of Minneapolis history, he was described as having “a peculiarly reticent disposition. He has his chosen friends, who are warmly attached to him, but does not readily assimilate with ephemeral attachments…He is assiduously devoted to his own affairs, content to leave those of others to their own concern.”

Except where the museum was concerned. The location, he wrote, must be clean, quiet, and well-lit, and the museum “placed upon high ground, where it will be imposing….” Downtown, in the grit of traffic and industry, would not do.

MIA 1; Press Coverage - Building of the Museum

Results of the 1911 fundraising dinner for construction of the MIA: $335,500 donated in 90 minutes.

He proposed his own land instead, the 10 acres between Third and Stevens avenues—one of the highest points in the city—that were once his family’s homestead. “I beg to advise you that, if the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts will secure the sum of $500,000 to be used in the construction of a permanent public museum of Arts and Crafts, I shall take pleasure in conveying to the City of Minneapolis, without cost or incumbrance, the property referred to, to be a memorial of my father, the late Dorilus Morrison….”

An illustration of the MIA's founding fathers, including William Hood Dunwoody in the upper left. Clinton Morrison, who donated the land, died before opening day.

An illustration of the MIA’s founding fathers, including William Hood Dunwoody in the upper left. Clinton Morrison, who donated the land, died before opening day.

The money came quickly. A fundraising dinner was set for the following week. A few days before, William Dunwoody wrote the president of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts to say he wouldn’t make it. It was a hand-written note, scrawled really, just a few sentences. Including this one: “Put me down for $100,000.” One fifth of the proposed project cost.

At the opening ceremony, on January 7, 1915, Dunwoody and Morrison were singled out for getting the ball rolling. “The old-time indomitable spirit of Minneapolis was fully aroused,” said the president of the museum, John Van Derlip, “and the noble monument of progress on yonder height was instantly assured.”

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