The Minneapolis Institute of Art loses its longtime director to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC
Kaywin Feldman, who a decade ago became the first woman to direct the Minneapolis museum, will be the first female director of the prestigious National Gallery, the institutions announced Tuesday.
As director and president, Feldman, 52, modernized the sprawling Mia, launching its first contemporary art department, integrating new technologies into its galleries and overseeing exhibitions that broke attendance records and rules no writings of what a museum exhibit might be.
During his tenure, attendance doubled — reaching more than 711,000 in fiscal year 2018. (The record was set in 2017, when 891,000 people visited.)
Feldman’s new post, which she begins in March, elevates her to another rung: the National Gallery, located on the National Mall, has some 5.2 million visitors a year. The National Gallery’s annual operating budget of $168 million, most of which comes from federal funding, dwarfs Mia’s budget of $35 million. The National Gallery has some 1,100 employees, while Mia has 440.
“He is a person of extraordinary talent, courage and vision,” said Nivin MacMillan, chair of Mia’s board of directors. “It’s only natural for her to move to another larger establishment. Although we are heartbroken at the moment, we are incredibly proud.
The announcement comes at a time of churn for some of Minnesota’s biggest arts organizations. The Walker Art Center’s new executive director takes office in January. The director of the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum is set to retire in 2020 after four decades at the helm. The Minnesota Orchestra, which just welcomed a new CEO, announced last week that its music director, Osmo Vänskä, will step down in 2022.
In an interview, Feldman praised the National Gallery’s “amazing” collection and highlighted its reputation as “the nation’s art museum”.
“What matters to me most is how art affects people and people’s lives,” she said. “I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished here, to be able to do it for our community. And of course, moving to Washington only gives this work a bigger platform.
At Washington’s flagship art museum, Feldman succeeds Earl “Rusty” Powell III, who is retiring after more than 25 years and inherits challenges.
“There’s just an incredible amount of stuff to do,” said Tyler Green, an author and historian who has spent two decades reporting on the arts scene in Washington, DC.
That includes tackling a lack of gallery and storage space, Green said, a problem compounded by recent acquisitions from the defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art. These works, many of them by women and African Americans, have helped diversify the National Gallery’s collection, but the museum has long prioritized white male artists, Green said. His leadership is known for being insular, he said, and disconnected from the field.
Feldman could be seen as an antidote. Thanks in part to her time as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, Feldman’s peers consider her an advocate for museums large and small, Green said.
“She’s certainly known for opening up Mia’s lineup to be more inclusive of a broad art history,” he said.
In months of searching for its next director, the fifth in its 77-year history, the National Gallery weighed dozens of candidates and interviewed seven, said its president, Frederick W. Beinecke. At the Minneapolis Institute of Art and, before that, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Feldman made the institutions “appealing to a wider audience and increased audiences in both places,” Beinecke said. DC’s board and staff hope she can do the same there, he said.
“We would like the gallery to be understood, recognized and appreciated by a larger and probably more diverse audience,” Beinecke said.
Mia’s board will meet this week to discuss Feldman’s plans and the search for its next director, MacMillan said. Feldman is the first person to serve as director and president of Nivin and Duncan MacMillan, a title that nods to the foundation’s $8 million gift that endowed the position in 2014. Feldman won 1 $005,000 in salary and compensation in fiscal year 2017, according to most recent tax filings.
“The success she’s had here, I think, is a good reflection of Mia herself,” Nivin MacMillan said. “There is fertile soil to work here.”
Feldman came to Minneapolis in 2008, hailed by the chairman of the board as “a child prodigy.” She succeeds William Griswold, who leaves with vacancies at the head of six departments and little book exposure. “We had one in sight and one in the works,” she said in an interview in her office on Monday. “That was it.”
In the first year, she landed a big show, filled vacancies, and initiated a strategic planning process that led to the creation of the contemporary collection. “For so long, we’ve kind of been defined as ‘Not the Walker,'” Feldman said. “Our collection ended, then the Walker began.”
During his tenure, through two major acquisitions, Feldman and his staff doubled the Japanese collection. In recent years, the museum has acquired major works by women and artists of color, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Ai Weiwei and Kehinde Wiley, known for his official portrait of President Barack Obama.
Although she enjoys working with art from all eras, Feldman’s training was in 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings. “I love being able to do it all,” she said, “but that’s where my greatest comfort lies.” The National Mall Art Museum has “a fantastic collection” of these works, including a Rembrandt “Lucretia” similar to Mia’s. The gallery feels at home in other ways as well.
As a child, Feldman moved often thanks to his father’s career as a captain in the Coast Guard. A few of her teenage years were spent in DC, where she had “the most wonderful French teacher who was connected and committed to us acquiring the culture,” she said. “And so once a year she would take us to the National Gallery of Art to show us French paintings.” Feldman’s father, who died a few years ago, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
“So the position has personal significance to me,” she said, “his public service and being back in Washington, near my dad.”
Feldman became a museum director at age 28. At a 2016 meeting of the American Alliance of Museums, Feldman recounted how, a few years later, she was interviewing at a larger museum in Texas when the chairman of the board told her, “You’re way too young and far too feminine for a conservative to report to you. In her speech, she revealed the reasons why, “among the 17 largest encyclopedic art museums, with budgets of more than 30 million dollars, we are only two”, two directors.
During an interview at the National Gallery, Feldman met a board who was “really determined to consider hiring a woman for the job,” she said.
Weisman’s director, Lyndel King, said the culture at the National Gallery was stifling, hierarchical, “the kind of place where you had to get your suit in the right place to get ahead”. In contrast, Feldman is collaborative, open to new ideas.
“It’s a really big change for them,” King said. “I think she will bring a non-Brooks Brothers approach to the National Gallery. I think she will be a breath of fresh air.
Editor Alicia Eler contributed to this report.