MAEP, MIA?—Museum leadership assailed at public meeting


Something is rotten in the state of the arts. Or so it seemed to more than 250 people who attended the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program (MAEP) community meeting last Saturday morning. The tense crowd of artists, museum staff, media representatives, and other community members swarmed like hornets out of a nest into the Pillsbury Auditorium at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) for a two-hour-plus meeting. Their issue? In a museum-wide restructuring effort, MIA director Kaywin Feldman—the museum’s fourth director in five years, Feldman began her tenure in January 2008—has reduced the MAEP’s autonomy, adding unprecedented layers of administrative oversight.

For the uninitiated: The MAEP is a democratic, self-governing exhibition program that is horizontal rather than hierarchical in its structure. A panel of artists elected by the program’s membership of artists curates five shows per year. Since 1977, the program has been administered by Stewart Turnquist, a museum staff coordinator who has reported directly to the museum director—putting him on an equal footing with the museum’s other curators. Two galleries in the museum’s new Target Wing are dedicated to MAEP exhibitions. The autonomous, artist-run program is unique to museums in this country, and it has operated smoothly since its inception as a pilot program in 1975.

“You have not addressed the question, Ms. Feldman. Would you please answer the question of why you have restructured the program?”

In January of this year, Feldman began working on a reorganization of the museum—a process that had begun under her predecessor William Griswold. Among many institution-wide changes, Feldman made the MAEP a subordinate program in the newly created Department of Contemporary Art. Instead of reporting directly to the museum director, the MAEP coordinator will report to Liz Armstrong, the recently hired curator of contemporary art. As part of the administrative restructuring, Armstrong is assuming an additional, newly-created position: Assistant Director of Exhibition Programs. In her two roles, Armstrong will report about MAEP activities not only to Feldman, but also to Matthew Welch, longtime curator of Japanese and Korean art, who is, since February, Assistant Director of Curatorial Affairs—another newly created position. In short, MAEP program activities must now be vetted at least two times before reaching Feldman’s desk. Symbolic of this restructuring is a new door cut into the wall separating the MAEP coordinator’s office from Armstrong’s. Believing the integrity of MAEP to be unacceptably compromised, on July 3 Turnquist gave the MIA a two-week notice of his resignation after 31 years on staff. July 18 was his last day.

Appearing for only 15 minutes, reading a prepared statement titled “MIA Remains Committed to MAEP,” Feldman spoke of the museum’s commitment to the program and to Minnesota artists. “By linking MAEP to our new Department of Contemporary Art at the museum, we intend to further expand the role of Minnesota artists at the MIA,” she read. “We also hope that MAEP artists will be an integral part of our entire contemporary program at the MIA.”

As if loaded for bear, the vocal audience sought clarification and answers to their questions. Voicing almost unanimous displeasure, meeting attendees asked why the museum would change the MAEP’s structure when it has been running well for over 30 years. Wayne Potratz, Professor of Sculpture at the University of Minnesota, was visibly frustrated as he protested, “You have not addressed the question, Ms. Feldman. Would you please answer the question of why you have restructured the program?”

Feldman reiterated that the MAEP was an important part of the institution and insisted that nothing had significantly changed; she noted, further, that the most recent organizational chart of museum staff and programs had not yet been made available to MAEP. When Feldman left an auditorium riling in dissatisfaction, her newly hired Assistant Director for Institutional Advancement (another new assistant director position), Leann Standish, remained.

For the remainder of the meeting, a panel of MAEP members asked and answered questions. More than two dozen artists voiced agitated opinions. Most questioned the future viability of MAEP, arguing that the program had lost its autonomy. Issues of program censorship, gallery space, and funding were addressed. A printed resolution drafted by artists Lee Bjorkland, Judy Onofrio, Doug Padilla, and Potratz objected to MAEP’s new structure and demanded (1) that the program be reinstated in its original form, as a sovereign curatorial department; (2) that Turnquist return to lead the search for a new coordinator; and, (3) that the MIA publicly honor Turnquist for his service.

In a previous meeting, the MAEP artists’ panel presented three future options for the program’s membership to consider: that MAEP be reinstated as originally conceived, that MAEP leave the current controversy behind and move forward in good faith, or that MAEP be formally dissolved and a new relationship, under a different identity, be forged with the MIA. No official decision was reached, as most in attendance felt that a wider MAEP membership should be able to vote either in person or online. Two significant dates were noted. Attendees were encouraged to attend the MIA members’ annual meeting on July 24, and to attend the next MAEP meeting, scheduled for August 2. A third meeting will be scheduled in September.

“We survived not by the grace of the Institute but by the grace of the organization,” declared artist Kinji Akagawa. “This is not a private organization but a public one. It is rooted in democracy. Now, the structural integrity is no longer there.”

Mason Riddle writes on the visual arts, architecture and design. She has contributed to publications including Artforum, Metropolis, the Star Tribune, and the Pioneer Press. She is guest editor for the upcoming Public Art Review #39: Between Rural and Urban, which explores public art in the suburbs.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Mason Riddle’s personal memories of MAEP.