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The lions in springtime: A floral tribute to Ella Pillsbury Crosby is an Art in Bloom surprise

The lions guarding the front steps of the MIA have never moved. Never flinched. Never roared. But this week, they bloomed.

The duo sprouted floral manes, courtesy of Art and Flowers Design Studio, as the MIA’s latest birthday year surprise. Giant poms of dianthus—some 200 blooms in each ball—loop through the lions’ paws, counterweights to each other. Forsythia branches fan out above them, leaping from the lions like rays of the sun. They’ll be up through Art in Bloom this weekend,  a tribute from Lucy Mitchell, a member of the MIA board of directors, to her mother, Ella Pillsbury Crosby.

Ella Pillsbury in the 1930s. (Photo courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.)

Ella Pillsbury in the 1930s. (Photo courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.)

Ella was born the same year as the MIA, in 1915, and grew up a block away from the museum in a house owned by her grandfather, founder of the Pillsbury Company—he supposedly won the place off his twin brother in a coin toss. She went to Northop Collegiate School for girls in Minneapolis (now the upper Blake School), Foxcroft finishing school in Virginia, and Vasser College in upstate New York. She married Tom Crosby, whose own grandfather had founded a competing mill, the Washburn Crosby Company (later General Mills), and moved out to Wayzata.

But she never lost sight of the MIA. In time, she joined the Friends of the Institute, which was an invitation-only club for wives and daughters of the museum’s founders until she became its president, threw open the doors, and doubled its membership. She turned the Friends into a major fundraiser for the museum, through a gift shop, fashion shows, and other benefits, though its society sheen lingered—at least for her. She once was addressing a crowd in Pillsbury Hall at the MIA when someone snapped from the front row, “Ella, where are your gloves?” It was her mother.

Ella became one of the first female members of the museum’s board of directors, in the 1960s, while remaining active with the Friends—by the 1990s she was the group’s longest-serving member. She began looking for a way to leave a more permanent mark.

Ella in 2008 at a Friends events, surrounded by family—daughter Lucy is at her left.

Ella in 2008 at a Friends events, surrounded by family—daughter Lucy Mitchell, donor of the lion flowers,  is at her left.

She saw her opening atop the pedestals alongside the MIA’s grand 24th Street staircase, which had always been empty. She had long envisioned guardian lions atop them, and so a curator was sent to China to look for a pair. When they proved difficult to export, she had them fabricated in a 1700s style. They were lifted into place in 1998, in honor of her late husband.

A neighbor said it was nice to see the lions back, though they had just arrived. When the Star Tribune ran a story about them, a photo caption said, “Thanks to the efforts of Ella Pillsbury Crosby, a pair of Chinese lions continue to grace an entryway at the Minneapolis Institute of Art”—they seemed like they had always been there.

The flowers left at their feet are a kind of offering, to a mother and a patron who died at 96 in 2012. They’re long-lasting varieties and will stay bright through the weekend. Then they’ll “die beautifully,” as the florist put it, fold into themselves until they become hard, like the lions themselves, and only the art will remain.