A bold new look at the MIA

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Zhang Huan

1/2 (Text), 1998

Chromogenic color print

For a long time now, the Twin Cities has looked to the Walker Art Center for its contemporary art, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a more historical perspective.

That’s going to change.

Until Now,” the MIA’s new exhibition opening Friday, and its accompanying exhibition “Art ReMix,” present a strong case for the argument that contemporary art belongs in the MIA. And not just on an occasional basis.

Liz Armstrong, recently hired by the MIA to head up its new Department of Contemporary Art, provided the vision for both projects. She looked at it as an opportunity to assemble a strong array of works from the past 50 years that have both a place in history and stand on their own in today’s more globalized artistic landscape.

It felt like it was important to set the parameters for what contemporary art would look like at the MIA as soon as possible. I had the benefit of hindsight, and so as I looked at the 50 years of work we weren’t actively collecting, I asked what is the picture here that makes sense for this collection at the MIA?

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Nick Cave

Soundsuit

2009

Mixed media

Rather than borrow works from other museums, Armstrong chose pieces for the show that are available for acquisition. Already the MIA’s board has approved the purchase of a few of the more than 80 paintings, sculpture and videos.

Many of Armstrong’s fellow curators at the MIA appear to not only accept the change in the museum’s scope, but are excited by it. As Curator of Prints and Drawings Tom Rassieur said to Armstrong, “how can we be an encyclopedic museum if we don’t collect volumes X, Y and Z?”

That excitement shows in “Art ReMix,” which places contemporary art in a historical setting. Alec Soth’s photograph of a woman leaning back on a bed hangs on a wall just feet from Gustave Caillebotte’s painting of a reclining nude from 1880. Kehinde Wiley’s Santos-Dumont – The Father of Aviation II hangs in a room filled with baroque paintings.

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The fact that Wiley is African-American, and that his painting depicts young black men in a very baroque style, only heightens the experience. For years Wiley has worked to take black men off the street and put them center stage in an epic story. Now one of those paintings has found its place among the masterworks of European history.

It is that juxtaposition of works from both different eras and different cultures that capture the imagination, and invite the mind to connect to art in a whole new way. In the case of artist Willie Cole’s “Ann Klein with a Baby in Transit,” a sculpture which at first appears to be right at home in the African art gallery, is in fact made out of designer shoes.

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Willie Cole

“Ann Klein with a Baby in Transit,” 2009

The notion of women’s designer shoes being imbued somehow with an almost animist power is underscored not just by the shape of the work itself, but in this case, by its location in the museum.

Curator Liz Armstrong says she’s constantly asked “so how are you going to be different than the Walker?” She says that’s not going to be hard; there is so much art out there to choose from, for a start. But also the MIA has the opportunity to put it in a historical context.

There’s so much here that it can get lost. The job of a curator is to pull things out, to highlight certain objects and underscore different meanings. It’s really about activating the power of what you have.

If “Until Now” and “Art ReMixed” are any indicaiton, Armstrong has a vision for contemporary art at the MIA which will not only give it a prominent place in the collection, but go a long way to bring older works to life for new audiences.

“Until Now: Collecting the New” opens Friday April 16 and runs through Sunday, August 1 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

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