Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Museum Profile: David Little and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

When a well-respected and long sitting curator is replaced by a new face (especially when parachuted in from the outside), there is an inevitable mix of excitement and trepidation. Will the new person continue on the same trajectory as the old, or chart a new strategic course for the department? How will the priorities for the collection and the exhibitions calendar change?

Regular readers here will know that I am interested in how collectors can better connect with museums, particularly those that are outside one's own specific geographic region. I am fascinated with the question of what's "hiding" in museums around the world, and how collectors who have affinities for certain types of work can connect with like-minded curators wherever they may reside; in my view, this is currently extremely inefficient or next to impossible (i.e if you are passionate about Photographer X, how can you discover which museums hold lots of this artists work and are excited about it, which ones have substantial holdings but are focused on other things, and which ones have small holdings now but would like to own more?). In pursuit of making the photo collector-museum relationship more transparent, I began a series of museum profiles a couple of years ago, where I outlined the details of the photography residing in smaller venues, complete with concrete collections data and acquisitions priorities. In my view, if museums don't communicate what they're interested in, how can collectors (beyond the local acquisitions committee) hope to get involved?

When David Little took the job as Curator of Photography and New Media at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in late 2008, he was stepping into some big, empty shoes. Ted Hartwell had founded the photography department in 1973 and been with the museum for decades. He had put on many ground breaking exhibitions and nurtured generations of photographers from the Twin Cities and further afield. And he had built an encyclopedic collection of approximately 11500 images, focused on American photography from 1900 to 1960 with breadth and range across all periods, and particular depth in documentary work, photojournalism, and pictorialism.

I contacted Little last summer and asked him if he'd be willing to talk a bit about the status of the collections (even though the MIA couldn't remotely be called a "small museum"), and more importantly, how he was thinking about the challenges that lay ahead. Little's background includes stints at the Whitney and MoMA, with a particular strength in education and new media. I'm happy to report that Little was willing to provide some detailed information on the collections, as well as to answer some pointed questions about his going forward plans. So let's start with some quick background.

Currently, the MIA holds approximately 11500 photographs, with a solid mix of all periods of the medium (5% pre-1900, 60% 1900-1980, 35% post-1980). A decent portion of the collection is up on the website (4600 images from more than 400 photographers) and can be easily searched here. Major holdings include works by Gilles Peress, Walker Evans, and various Magnum photographers. Details on key contributors and supporters over the years can be found here; in particular, there are permanent venues at the museum designated for both the existing photography collection (Harrison Galleries) and contemporary work (Perlman Gallery). As such, a broad set of photographic imagery is always on view at the MIA, a claim not many museums can actually make.

The Photography department is staffed by Little and Associate Curator Christian Peterson, who is a specialist in Pictorialism and in the MIA's collection. Elizabeth Armstrong, Curator of Contemporary Art, is also involved in the photography program. Recent photography exhibitions have included:
  • Southern Exposure: Photographs of the American South (on view now)
  • Josef Sudek and Czech Photography (2009/2010)
  • New Pictures: Noriko Furunishi (2009/2010)
  • Tom Arndt's Minnesota (2009)
  • Masterpiece Photographs from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: The Curatorial Legacy of Carroll T. Hartwell (2008/2009)
  • Friedlander: Photography (2008)
  • Peter Henry Emerson and American Naturalistic Photography (2008)
  • Alec Soth: Sleeping by the Mississippi (2008)
  • The Search to See I and II: Photographs from the Collection of Frederick B. Scheel (2007/2008)

Several hundred photographs have entered the collection in the past few years; works are typically acquired via donation or through a dedicated acquisitions budget for photography. The museum also has a Photographs Study Room that can be reserved on weekdays by appointment (call (612) 870-3183).

Given that Little's expertise is grounded in contemporary art and theory since 1960, it's clear that he is interested in photographs that address the larger themes and issues that circulate within this broader artistic field, rather than in the internal debates rooted inside the traditional photography community. With a "classic modern collection" as a backdrop, and a larger institutional context that spans thousands of years and multiple cultures across the globe, he wants to build on the photo collection's strengths in documentary and photojournalism, but "with more of a contemporary twist". Little feels "we can articulate visual and intellectual connections that are difficult to do in museums focused on art of the last 100 plus years". This boils down to a near term focus on acquiring works from 1968 onward, in both photography and new media, and extending outward "in relationship to our encyclopedic collection as a whole".

Several brand new initiatives are already heading in this direction. The Art ReMix program is based on a simple, but extremely powerful, idea. Take contemporary art (mostly photography) and juxtapose it with art in other parts of the museum - literally, hang the pictures in the midst of the other permanent collection exhibitions. Works by Thomas Struth, Marco Breuer, JoAnn Verburg, Alec Soth, Lorraine O'Grady, Kota Ezawa, Sharon Core, and Cindy Sherman (among others) are now spread across the museum (out of the photography ghetto), challenging visitors to "think about ideas that they never considered". This effort is paired with a new exhibition, Until Now, Collecting the New (open through August 2010), which focuses on recent work in a variety of media. The New Pictures series is another show of commitment to and engagement with fresh and experimental work. This solo series began last year with Noriko Furunishi, and Marco Breuer is the featured photographer right now. Both Art ReMix and New Pictures have their own websites/blogs (here and here) to draw out further discussion and interaction with their audiences.

In the fall, yet another nod to contemporary photography will be on view - a group show entitled The Embarrassment of Riches: Picturing Wealth, 2000-2010. It's clear that Little is focused on ramping up the engagement with visitors. In his view, "I want the shows to be relevant to the experiences of audiences. The great power of photography is the way in which it circulates in the world, and even more so in a networked global culture. I will capitalize on this."

An interesting question for the future is how an MIA with a renewed focus on contemporary photography will balance the efforts of the Walker Art Center across town, in terms of their respective roles/"brands" in the community/region and their relationships to the cadre of talented local artists. Little says, "there are many narratives and positions to articulate in contemporary art and there is plenty of room for both institutions to stake a claim for the most important art. New York is proof of that, with the Whitney, MoMA, the New Museum, the Guggenheim, and the Met, each with distinctive programs."

All in, Little seems energized by the concept of taking a deep and important collection of photography and recontextualizing it for the current times. He seems open to engaging with local collectors and those from further afield, and bringing exciting and complex photographic work to Minneapolis. It's a tough job to take over for such a well-liked figure as Ted Hartwell, but David Little seems to be hard at work, leveraging the past while making the job his own.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts
2400 Third Avenue South
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55404

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