Space, collection, engagement
“We ask what it means to be American, and then we complicate that through conversation and inviting myriad experiences to exist simultaneously,” said Courtney Gerber, curator of Learning and Engagement at the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Located in the Historic Endicott building, a short two blocks from Union Depot Station in downtown Saint Paul, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, or less formally, “The M,” showcases a variety of American artists of the 19th century to the present.
The M first began as the St. Paul School of Fine Arts in 1894. “School” has been attached to the name for many years, but as the M has bounced around different Saint Paul locations, its name has changed to “Saint Paul Art Center” and “Minnesota Museum of Art,” finally adding “American” to the name in 1992. In the gallery’s work to reflect both the national and regional art, and the way in which the American experience fluctuates and varies from person to person, the M has come to acquire more than 4,500 pieces of fine art, fine craft, ceramics and textiles in its collection.
In her position, Gerber is deeply involved in the M’s educational aspects. “I think about using art as a vehicle for learning and engaging with one’s surroundings, whether that be one’s neighborhood, city, or state—a very personal engagement or group engagement,” she said. Gerber works with a variety of artists and organizations to arrange interdisciplinary programs, classes, community events, and even traveling exhibitions around the Midwest, with the help of Christopher Atkins, curator of exhibitions.
In an effort to bring diverse and relevant issues into discussion, the M has recently launched a series of “listening sessions,” where it encourages the community to participate in conversations about the importance and relevance of art and where there is room for improvement. In these sessions participants discuss barriers to accessing the arts and how it can be addressed in the community. “We’re going out into the world and we’re listening,” says Gerber. “We want to know what is needed from both our immediate neighbors and those outstate.” Gerber and her associates constantly consistently consider how to represent Minnesota.
In terms of exhibitions, the M is relatively small, currently only showing one exhibition. Past exhibits have differed from being entirely collection based to entirely individual artist based, to a combination of collection pieces and pieces from multiple artists. The M prides itself in its work and relationships with local artists, and it always turns to them first before looking for art and artists across the country. “We have such a great community of creators and thinkers,” said Gerber. The M attempts to explore national issues within a more local context in this way.
Currently, the M hosts Ken Gonzales-Day’s “Shadowland,” a collection of Gonzales-Day’s work that was inspired by and explores the construction of race and racialized violence in the United States. A large portion of the exhibit contains the result of years and years of in-depth research of lynchings and police brutality that took place in California during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
From past to present, Gonzales-Day considers these historical factors in the representation of his more modern-day pieces, which are also featured in the exhibit. Overall, his work includes powerful photographs, both black and white and in color. In taking on an extremely difficult and heavy subject matter, that of racially provoked violence and trauma, Gonzales-Day’s pieces are careful and considerate, especially given contemporary social and political occurrences.
The mission, vision and values of the M additionally guide the way in which it presents itself as an institution and as a community collaborator. “Our mission, paraphrased, is to invite people to see themselves reflected in American art, and that’s a big mission,” noted Gerber. “American identity is complex and there’s not just one version, it’s about multiplicity and it’s about intersection.” Through engagement and conversations such as Listening Sessions, the M’s staff thinks through the most sustainable ways to maintain community relationships and incorporate feedback into their work.
The M is free to the public and open Thursday through Sunday. Shadowlands will be on display until April 16. Upcoming events at the Museum include a Listening Session in Rochester the 22nd, in Saint Paul on May 13, and CreatorKids and Honors Visual Art Exhibition, which will feature work from students of St. Paul Public Schools on April 27. More information can be found on the M’s website, https://mmaa.org.