Once at Mia: What’s in a name?

This week, the museum announced a refreshing of its name—two names, actually: Mia (pronounced Mee-ah), replacing the acronym MIA, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, instead of Arts. These may seem like small changes to reflect contemporary language, but in deeper ways they reconnect the museum with its 100-year-old roots.

How a proposed city plan in 1917 would have placed the museum, as the center of all the arts, at the nexus of grand boulevards and parkways.

A proposed city plan, shown here in 1917, placed the museum, as “the center of all the arts,” at the nexus of grand boulevards and parkways.

The founders believed that museums were dead. To call yourself a museum in the early 1900s, at the height of the progressive era, was to be a “storehouse,” a “prison of arts, where those who spoke the language of art could wander through the stately galleries and hold converse with the prisoners behind the gilded bars of their frames,” as Joseph Breck, Mia’s founding director, put it in 1914.

A Minneapolis institute, on the other hand, following the lead of Chicago and its arts institute, would be both a gallery and a school, a place where art is alive—indeed still being made. The plan was for half the collection to be contemporary art.

A sketch class on the grounds of the Minneapolis School of Art (now MCAD) in July 1927.

A sketch class on the grounds of the Minneapolis School of Art (now MCAD) in July 1927.

The “Arts” in the name was deliberately and ambitiously plural, inscribing the vision of the institute as a place for performing as well as visual arts. The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, now the Minnesota Orchestra, was to be housed alongside the museum, ballets and plays were to be performed. The original architectural designs offered plenty of space—designs that were never fully realized.

“The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is the name by which the new museum is to be known,” Robert Koehler wrote in its Bulletin in 1914. “The choice is undoubtedly a most appropriate one, since it designates clearly the full scope and purpose of the institution….”

By the 1920s, when an auditorium and other additions were being proposed, hope was still being held out that the orchestra and other local performing artists would take their rightful place among the paintings and sculptures. “The name Institute of Arts was chosen advisedly to indicate the aim of its founders to make it the center of all the arts,” the Bulletin noted in a 1923 announcement of a concert series in one of the museum’s larger galleries. “At present, limitations of space and income prevent the fulfillment of this ideal….” It continued with some sour grapes: “The Saturday night concerts at the Metropolitan Museum [of Art, in New York], endowed by Mr. Rockefeller and others, have proved so popular that the average attendance is over seven thousand, many hundreds of whom are glad of a chance to sit on the floor.”

Modern dancers Gertrude Lippincott (left) and Gertrude Cain at the museum in 1959, part of an attempt to regularly host performing arts in the PIllsbury Auditorium.

Minneapolis modern dancers Gertrude Lippincott (left,  founder of one of the first racially integrated dance studios in the country) and Eunice Cain at the museum in 1959, part of an attempt to regularly host performing arts in the Pillsbury Auditorium.

After the 700-seat Pillsbury Auditorium was built at the institute, in 1926, there were plays, dance showcases, recitals, and other performances at the museum—as there sometimes are today. But by then, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra had plans of its own, and moved into Northrop Auditorium when it opened in 1929. The city was growing up quickly, its arts organizations finding their own homes and missions. The museum would spend the next decades defining itself on its own, with an outsize name to match its progressive ambitions.

This year, the museum partnered with Pentagram, a global design and branding firm based in New York that has helped refresh other major museums. Over the years, as the museum began using MIA as a shorthand for its formal name, it was clear that the acronym, because of its long association with Missing in Action, was problematic. Mia, on the other hand, means “mine” in Spanish and other languages, and, as the new logo designed by Pentagram demonstrates, readily establishes a complete identity apart from the initials. Mia will now be the common name of the museum, while dropping the “s” in Arts simply resolves a bit of history. No one needs to worry about the vision behind this place anymore, set in stone for a hundred years now, only how to reflect it in words.