Modernizing Mia at a Time When Legacy Art Institutions are Struggling to Adapt
Minneapolis Institute of Arts director and president Kaywin Feldman ( Photo by Travis Anderson)

Modernizing Mia at a Time When Legacy Art Institutions are Struggling to Adapt

A decade into her tenure, Kaywin Feldman discusses disruption, reinvention and the dangers of relying exclusively on data.

This winter marks the start of Kaywin Feldman’s second decade as director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia). That tenure is notable for dramatic growth in the museum’s collection, revenue and attendance (the latter has more than doubled, reaching a record 891,000 last year, up from 425,000 at the dawn of her directorship). Observers credit her for moving aggressively to modernize Mia in the face of the generational obsolescence issues that all legacy arts institutions struggle with. Feldman and Mia labor in relative obscurity, as the Walker Art Center garners local and national media attention (not all of it favorable). Still, it’s been argued that the more compelling transformation story is on Third Avenue, not Vineland Place. As she begins her second, and likely final, decade there, we spoke to Feldman, 51, about transformation and the necessity of reinventing legacy institutions as their customers and marketplaces change—as evidenced by Mia’s creation of the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts just days after our interview.

TCB: Take us back a decade to what you understood to be the challenges in 2008.
I told the board from the beginning that one of the things that distinguishes us is the quality of our collection. I didn’t feel our [guest] experience in the galleries was equal to our collection. I was also interested in animating the building and collection, connecting the community with the collection. We had spent the past 30 years acquiring more art, and [expanding the physical space]. It had become a distraction to programming.

Q  What are the unique challenges that encyclopedic, so-called survey museums face?
The biggest one is a changing America. Demographics. [The U.S.] will be majority people of color by 2043. We were founded 102 years ago, when the citizens of Minnesota decided we needed a great art museum and we needed a culture and they completely looked to Europe. We were founded to look like Europe.

With audiences becoming so much more diverse and digitally native, we’re responding so that people see themselves reflected in the institution. That’s in staffing, collection and in relevance. Younger generations demand we be more than pretty places to look at art. They want to know that we’re connected to what’s happening in society, whether it’s thinking about Black Lives Matter and integrating that into our programming or that we’re thinking about a border wall with Mexico. It’s being political with a small “p.” All art is political, and you ignore it to your peril.

Q  When I think about a great European still-life painting, it feels like an escape from the tumult of the world. So it’s intriguing that your strategic plan emphasizes connecting Mia with the chaos.
Well, I want you to come and be able to look at beautiful art quietly. Fifty years from now people will still be doing that here. But millennials are much more interested in social responsibility. They are less interested in how many still-lifes we have [and more interested in] how we have impacted people with them.

Q  That’s a lot of responsibility for what was just a decade ago a box of art with a restaurant.
Yes. Earlier the idea of a museum was like a secular church, a spiritual place to go. Younger people want more a central square that reflects cultural values. Maybe that still life was owned by a slaveholder who bought it with ill-gotten gains. They want that complexity acknowledged.

Q  That seems to fly in the face of last year’s “Scaffold” controversy at the Walker Art Center, which caused me to ask how artists create challenging art in the current environment. Then this idea of cultural appropriation—that, for example, Gauguin had no right to go to the South Pacific and paint another culture and then profit off it.
For the last two years I’ve said to my board that identity politics is the one thing that keeps me up at night. One of my trustees suggested that what happened at the Walker couldn’t happen here. But go upstairs—we have sexism, we have racism, we have colonialism, we have imperialism, we have war. Because we represent all of human history.

We can’t be too careful in our work. Boards and staffs of museums have to look like their communities. In this particular sensitive moment it is difficult for someone of another race to produce a work of art.

Q  Even if the motivations are good?
Yes, it’s a moment to be very careful. That will change, but for now, very careful.

Q  Was there any difficulty in convincing your board of the need to reorient Mia externally?
I wouldn’t say that we did so exclusively. We have certainly continued to make great additions to the collection and to maintain our facilities. The difference is that we focused our work around strategic plans that were measured by outcomes and impacts on the community. Ultimately, serving community needs and impacting human lives is much more important to us than the number of works of art that we can acquire.

Q  Was there anyone in particular on your board or in the corporate or arts community who has served as an advisor or helped you navigate difficult dilemmas or phases? How so?
One of the favorite parts of my job is that I never stop learning—and I get to learn from so many smart, experienced and talented people. I have worked now with seven board chairs at Mia: Brian Palmer, Diane Lilly, John Himle, Hubert Joly, Maurice Blanks and Nivin MacMillan. Each one of them has supported me with excellent advice and guidance along the way and I am a better leader for it.

Q  What was in your original strategic plan?
I was instructed to do one in my first six months. I did it without consultants, because it was a way to listen. It’s the worst strategic plan I’ve been a part of, but it served its purpose. It was rooted in the last century. It was focused on our collection. We decided to start a contemporary art department.

Q  Were there economic imperatives?
Well, the crash happened as I wrote it. And we did two rounds of layoffs. We had to slice $5 million out of [a $24 million] budget over 18 months.

Q  How would you describe the changes here over the past decade?
From the public standpoint, we now focus a lot on surprise. People will say, “I’ve been there. I’ve done the Met, I’ve done the Uffizi”—as if visiting once, you’ve consumed it. We rely on a local population. We don’t get a lot of tourists here. So we need to be constantly fresh and constantly surprising. We brought in a contemporary artist from Los Angeles to paint all the walls in our contemporary gallery. People love it, people hate it. I’m good with both, I just want people to care.

We have video art now. There are a lot more experimental installations. We try to connect news of the day with art. When we heard a royal baby was coming, we had an art deco pram in the collection and we took it out and put it on display. And we do a lot more programming that is community-based. Our exhibitions are bolder. It’s not enough to do a blockbuster; King Tut was 40 years ago. Our Martin Luther exhibition included a German church pulpit from the 1500s preserved from a church.

Q  Behind the scenes?
Technology has been an emphasis. Even when we were laying off, tech was growing. Now the biggest area of growth is data analysis. I changed the org chart to create a leadership team; there hadn’t been one before. We’ve tried to change the culture. We have a culture plan. We hire for culture, we don’t just hire for skills. We review for it as well.

Read more from this issue

When I first arrived, there was something called EMIC, the employee morale improvement committee. It met every month and the first agenda item was always “rumor control.” I said to the board, “When EMIC is gone I will know I have made progress.” It took about six months.

Q  Your strategic plan is big on “personalization.” How do you do that?
About 10 years ago we came to understand that people don’t interact with us based on age or number of kids or ZIP code, as was believed. People operate on different motivations—fear of missing out, guests in town. A lot of personalization comes from CRM (customer relationship management) and data. We are still building it, but we will have a lot of opportunities for you to check in.

Q  So you want that relationship whether there’s revenue attached or not?
Yes, because we’re here to serve the public good.

Q  We see an endless train of corporate headquarters leaving the Twin Cities, with ominous trends for philanthropy. What is the current state of philanthropy at Mia?
After the crash, we made an effort to increase our operating endowment from $190 million to about $250 [million] now. In terms of overall trends, the one we’re concerned about is corporate giving. Individuals write annual checks and help us buy works of art, but corporations tend to fund large exhibitions. Not only is corporate support declining, but they’re becoming so specific—“We want to fund K-12, we want to fund nutrition.” So we’re working to build our individual donor base to pay for exhibitions. That’s a harder sell. They’d rather see something [that exists] long term. As these exhibitions become more expensive and your audience gets more and more sophisticated, they get harder to pay for.

Q  I remember reading an article about the difficulty of finding leaders for major museums because of how much of the job is fundraising.
I liken it to being a shark that can never stop swimming.

Q  One thing I hear a lot from key figures at Mia is that the institution has become “customer-focused.” What does that mean and why?
In the last 15 years the biggest change in museums is this move to being more visitor-centered. We used to do things more because a curator wanted to present an exhibition that would make a contribution to scholarship. The labels were written in case a curator from the National Gallery came to town.

It’s thinking about being accessible: free admission, the titles for our shows. All visitor studies often show the biggest barriers to getting people to visit are practical, like parking and finding bathrooms. If you can bring people once and get them accustomed to the institution, they are likely to come back.

Q  Is there a simple answer to why visitation has doubled in a decade?
It’s all of those things.

Q  Is that a trend line that a lot of survey museums are showing?
Not to the degree we have shown.

Three Favorite Works (and two Feldman acquisitions)

1} Writing Desk, 1870, William Howard (acquired 2012)
KF: It’s a really important piece because it was made by a freed slave. He carved all of these implements, like 70 [of them]. We haven’t been able to identify all of them. And when you open it up inside, it’s cotton crates. There is not much known about William Howard. I had put a moratorium on arts purchases because our funds were depleted, but I said, “Get that.”

TCB: What did something like this cost?
KF: We don’t ever talk about that.

2} Ram, 1938-42, William Edmondson (acquired 2013)
KF: [Edmondson] was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is also self-taught art, like Howard’s. He was born in Nashville, the son of freed slaves. He used railroad ties and hammers and found stone. Because he was illiterate he used biblical scenes or things in the news. He did sculptures of Joe Louis and Eleanor Roosevelt.

3} Self-portrait with Dr. Arrieta, 1820, Francisco Goya (acquired 1952)
KF: Goya painted it after he got really sick. Dr. Arrieta was a plague specialist, so we think he had the plague. But he was healed. It’s about vulnerability and love. You can see Goya is ashen-faced, clutching at the bedclothes, letting another man embrace him. What man paints himself in such a vulnerable way? Doctors love to use this painting on conference programs. I don’t think it’s about medicine. I think it’s about love. It’s an incredible masterpiece in the collection.

Q  “Engagement” is the buzzword of the era. What is the business imperative behind it here?
Engagement, in the past, meant whatever your thing was—the orchestra, the museum—you wrote your $60 annual check, and that was engagement. It meant you cared about this place. But the trend line is that people are visiting but they are not joining. People are more culturally promiscuous. We got ourselves into a system that was too transactional—if you pay us $60, we’re going to give you all these free tickets and a discount at the gift store and we’re going to send you a Christmas card. And then the next year we’re going ask for $65, so we’re going to add a party.

Q  So how did that translate to a free level of membership at Mia?
We love the label of “the people’s museum.” If you self-select, then we can get to know you. If I know you have come to the last three African art shows and bought catalogs in the shop, we can market to you. It’s a better connection.

Q  With free membership and free admission, what is your revenue pie chart like?
We raise about 35 percent of our revenue. Earned revenue is 15 percent. It’s one of the smallest earned revenues of any museum because everything is free. We charge for parking to keep up the ramp; ticket sales, facility rentals. The rest is endowment and the Park Museum Fund.

Q  The Museum Fund contributed nearly $12 million last year?
It’s about 40 percent of our revenue base. It comes from Hennepin County taxes for parks. [The contribution rises nearly 7 percent to $12.77 million in 2018.]

Q  What is the greatest predictor of museum attendance today?
Oddly enough, it’s proven that the people who go to museums are the ones whose parents took them.

Q  Do you use focus groups?
We do a lot of them. For every exhibition. Our show titles were [formerly] created by curators and they were always clever. Well, through focus groups I’ve learned we cannot be literal enough! I sat behind the glass for “Rembrandt in America.” People didn’t get it. “When did Rembrandt come to America?” So our titles have gone super-literal. We test promotional images, words that resonate.

Q  How is data transforming things here?
A lot. We can see how and when people buy tickets for our shows. We have a person who does nothing but measure how successful we are in social media. [But] I would say that museums, to their detriment, have focused too much on numbers. Your excellence becomes measured in that. But we become increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of many if we only count paintings on the wall. That’s why we’ve increasingly, as a staff, turned our eyes to the impacts we have. It’s hard to track and measure.

We’ve all done economic impact studies. I don’t think anyone is swayed by the fact that we have an economic impact. They care because we change people’s lives. That’s the story we need to keep telling.

Q  You’ve been here a decade. How much longer are you going to stay? It’s kind of an itinerant profession.
It is. Seven years is the average. I also believe museum directors have a shelf life. You can stay too long. I want to leave while the party is still fun. You have a supportive community. It’s not as easy in other parts of the country to run an art museum.

I’m really excited about this project we’re doing with the architect David Chipperfield. I feel like a lot of the work we need to do is fixing design problems from the past. And we have some really aging infrastructure. Our parking ramp is 50 years old. I feel really strongly that I have the connections and credibility now to fix these things to leave the museum in a better place.

Q  What besides the parking ramp?
We’ve got 500,000 square feet here, with three primary buildings. We maintain, we’re super-responsible. But in 100 years, things pile up. We have some HVAC issues. We are out of art storage. Gallery [navigation] is super-confusing. Our restaurant hasn’t been touched in 50 years. It’s in a bad location, so we have to move it. Our classrooms are dated. We own a lot of land around the museum, so it’s also thinking about how we might use it in the future. We own a church and two former nursing homes.

Q  Food has become a key driver of interest at many museums; not so much here. How do you figure out the sweet spot?
Museum directors gripe constantly about food: 90 percent of museum restaurants lose money. I’m not interested in subsidizing food. We don’t at the moment. But we want a proper restaurant. Sometimes board members get starry-eyed and say, “Let’s have a destination restaurant.” That’s not us. We’re the people’s museum. We want something that reflects our brand.

Q  So you don’t see it as potentially a tail that wags the dog?
No. Part of it is we’re not in the middle of a lot of people. We’re not downtown. We’re not open nights. Whatever it becomes, it will still be about enhancing the experience here.

Q  You’ve added a contemporary collection. How do you do that with one of the world’s leading modern art institutions down the street?
So many of our collections, when I arrived, ended around 1900. I felt it was a disservice to not show that these cultures are vibrant and still producing art.

Q  This is a community that prides itself on its literacy and support of the arts. It’s also terribly insecure about its place in the world.
When I arrived, our mission statement began, “The mission of the MIA is to be the leading art museum in the world.” No it’s not. We changed that.

Q  A decade in, what’s your take on Minneapolis as a cultural hub?
There’s always that sense of “[How] do we stack up?” It’s not an easy question. But this is such a golden place to be because it’s long believed in the arts. But because we don’t see many tourists, our audience is the region. So what feeds my soul the most is impacting people’s lives. We do it here, as do so many of our [other] arts institutions. How wonderful for us.