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In historic St. Paul buildings, a museum has been reborn

November 29, 2018

There were moments when the construction of Minnesota’s newest museum felt more like an archaeological dig. Giant brick archways emerged from behind decades-old drywall last year as workers carved out a sculpture court to greet visitors to the Minnesota Museum of American Art.

“Nobody knew they were there,” Executive Director Kristin Makholm said of the arches. “They were totally hidden behind walls.”

It was just another surprise on Makholm’s journey as she transformed the nearly 130-year-old Pioneer Endicott buildings — and her once-moribund museum — into a 21st-century art venue.

After a year of work, “The M” will reopen in St. Paul with kickoff parties Saturday night and Sunday. Visitors to the buildings, designed in part by State Capitol architect Cass Gilbert, will experience a new ground-floor gallery, a multiuse art studio and the work of New York-based artist Sheila Pepe, whose spiderweb-like fiber art now hangs in the two-story-high courtyard.

It’s a moment to savor for an institution that has been buffeted by crises for a quarter-century.

When Makholm took over in 2009, she was the M’s only employee. The museum was homeless and heavily in debt. Some questioned whether it could survive.

Like her construction workers, Makholm has had to sift through a complex history.

“We’ve had many homes in the past,” she said. “But this is our last permanent home.”

A Minnesota treasure

In fact, the M has inhabited 13 locations since its inception in 1894.

Nearly as old as the buildings it now occupies, the museum holds a special place in the history of St. Paul, and the state.

“I believe it is the longest-standing cultural institution in Minnesota,” said Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance and former director of arts and culture for the city of St. Paul. “They were incorporated before the Minnesota Orchestra, which often claims that title.”

Originally launched as the St. Paul School of Fine Arts, it later added a gallery, then began building a permanent collection.

The museum has had something of a nomadic existence since the 1960s, inhabiting no fewer than five buildings in downtown St. Paul. When Makholm came aboard, it had just lost its lease in the former West Publishing complex perched along the river bluff.

Determined to bring about a resurrection, she developed a strategic plan while keeping the museum in the public eye with a series of pop-up shows around the state.

The M found its new home after a developer bought the Pioneer Endicott buildings in 2011. He planned to convert it into apartments but needed signature tenants to anchor the retail space on the bottom two floors.

The museum established a small “Project Space” there and began staging exhibitions in December 2012. It was open only a few hours every week, but it was a start.

That two-year lease led ultimately to a $23 million project, with design work by the Minneapolis architectural firm VJAA.

This weekend’s events are just the first act in the museum’s rebirth. Only about 50 works from its 5,000-piece collection are on display, according to curator of exhibitions Christopher Atkins. Phase two, scheduled for 2020, will nearly triple the amount of gallery space.

The M is positioning itself as not just a museum, but also a space for community engagement and learning. Although founded as a school, it abandoned its educational component in the early 1990s as it cut staff following the collapse of a fundraising campaign to build a new home.

Arts education once again will be front and center at the new M, with the Josephine Adele Ford Center for Creativity offering classes for both adults and children. In December, people can learn how to paint portraits from Twin Cities artist Leslie Barlow or make clay flutes with ceramicist Xilam Balam.

“The beautiful thing of having classes within the museum is that you have artists who are really excited about connecting to what is in the galleries and bringing it into what they are teaching,” said Atkins.

A time to party

Sunday’s opening party will include a ribbon-cutting at noon, live music at 4 p.m. by Lady Xok — the M’s first artist-in-residence, Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarra of the indigenous-run Twin Cities collective Electric Machete — performances all day by dance collaborative SuperGroup, and hands-on, all-ages activities with artists Carrie Thompson and Aki Shibata.

Duluth artist David Bowen will inaugurate the museum’s Window Gallery facing Robert Street with the light installation “Wave Line.”

The M has already slated upcoming 2019 exhibitions including “The Good Making of Good Things: Craft Horizons Magazine 1941-1979” with the American Craft Council, and “Brad Kahlhamer: A Nation of One” by the New York-based artist whose work explores the intermingling and contradictions of American culture and identity and his own “tribally ambiguous” background.

Recently the M was approached by Mizna, a St. Paul-based organization focused on promoting Arab-American culture, about presenting an exhibition of 21st-century Arab and Arab-American artists. Atkins is now planning “History Is Not Here: Art and the Arab Imaginary” with curators Heba Amin and Maymanah Farhat.

“People have come to us,” said Atkins. “They see us living our mission. To have folks reach out to us has been very affirming.”

The museum’s various spaces straddle the 16-story-high Pioneer Building, built in 1889 on the corner of Robert and 4th streets, and the L-shaped Endicott, built in 1890 and designed by Gilbert to wrap around its neighbor.

The spaces are connected by what used to be an alley, used as a loading dock for trucks. It shows traces of the building’s history.

“Those used to be exterior walls,” said Courtney Gerber, curator of learning and engagement, pointing to scratches in the brickwork. “People would write their initials into these walls.”

Nearby, the construction team discovered a giant iron vault (the building was a bank at one point).

It is this history that Makholm believes adds to the complexities that is the M.

“This makes a way more interesting art museum,” she said in the former alleyway that is now used to display works from the collection, including a new piece by Rochester artist Judy Onofrio.

“We are standing in an originally outside space that is now an inside space. It has been really great to play with the old and the new, and that’s what the art is about, too: the contemporary and historic, and bringing those together.”

612-673-4437 • @AliciaEler

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