Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In Praise of Small Gems

View into the galleries: The Museum of Russian Art

I had several ideas in mind for the first Museum Notes blog of 2012; writing about a holiday visit to The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis hadn't been one of them.

The Twin Cities is a museum-rich community with many choices for a holiday museum visit. Originally, my husband and I had thought we might visit the recently expanded Weisman Art Center or the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. As we went out the door, I suggested visiting TMORA; I had been to before, but my husband had not. We hadn’t known about the current exhibits. We simply headed for the museum and found this relatively new, small, and out of the way museum to be a small gem.

The Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) was founded in 2001 by American art dealer Raymond E. Johnson and his wife Susan with works from their private collection of Russian art. First opened in a Twin Cities suburb in 2002, the museum re-opened at its current location in south Minneapolis in 2005 in a renovated and long-empty church.

In spite of its location in a residential neighborhood and facing a sound barrier along the interstate, the museum is quiet and intimate; it feels like a refuge worlds away. Renovated by Julie Snow Architects, Inc., the building was remodeled just enough to re-purpose the space, highlight details, and maintain a sense of calm. A clear glass rail on the mezzanine and careful attention to lighting open, connect, and soften the space. Restoration succeeded in revitalizing the building for showing Russian art from the 20th century as well as artifacts from the 3rd century B.C.

The two current exhibits are The Art of Oleg Vassiliev: Discovering 20th Century Russian Masters and Antiquities from the Ukraine: Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations. One of the most prominent members of the non-conformist art movement that flourished in the Soviet Union, Vassiliev now lives in the Twin Cities. For 30 years he managed to stay under the Soviet radar and earn a living by being a children’s book illustrator at a Soviet publishing house. The exhibit features a selection of 75 of his works on paper, book illustrations, and paintings that span 50 years.
Antiquities from the Ukraine follows a chronology of archeological artifacts from the Neolithic age to the Byzantine era unearthed in the Ukraine. Artifacts created and left by the peoples who lived in, traded with, traveled through, invaded, and occupied the region include 7,000 year-old Trypilian pottery, Cimmerian bronze swords from 1,100 B.C., and 3rd century B.C. gold jewelry ornaments from Scythian burial mounds. 
Convivial and Well-composed
The museum was pleasantly packed; the cashier mentioned this with obvious delight as we entered. The three gallery spaces–ground, mezzanine, and lower levels–were small enough for us to be able to stand close to art and artifacts and pass by others without jostling and bumping. The spaces were not just pleasantly packed; people were also engaged and connecting. Connections were seasonal, personal, and sometimes inspired by the artifacts. I noticed a few people pausing and greeting others for the briefest chat and new-year greetings. Occasionally someone spontaneously commented on the astounding size of clay jars from the 4th century B.C., inviting comments and opening up a conversation.
Besides a good size crowd, the visitor mix was varied in a way I don’t often find in the Twin Cities. Europeans, families with children, 20 and 30-somethings, and multi-cultural and cross-generational groups filled the galleries. I heard Russian, Polish, Turkish, and German spoken; three young sisters repeated in German in hushed tones to their mother, “Guck mal, Mutti!” (Oh, look, Mommy) as each pointed to a fantastic gold necklace, buckle, earrings, or crown.
As a museum planner, I couldn’t help but wonder how this small, relatively new museum drew such a large crowd. I overheard a TMORA staff person and intern talking about how the museum had done no marketing over the holidays. A small museum’s voice could hardly compete with holiday roar of  Target and Wal-mart. So, perhaps Vassiliev has a local following. Or perhaps people simply know how to find their way to a museum for beauty, respite and shared experiences, especially around the holidays.
We hadn’t come to TMORA with a particular interest in Russian art or Ukrainian antiquities. Nevertheless, we were drawn in, and fully. I noticed and was somewhat surprised at how I found myself caring about these artifacts and where they had come from; hoping my Ukrainian neighbor could see the exhibit; enchanted by Vasssilev’s children’s book illustrations. Viewing Vasssilev’s House with the Mezzanine prints inspired by Anton Chekov’s story, “House with the Mezzanine,” I decided I want to read that with my book group.
Reflecting on my previous visit, the nature of my engagement with these two exhibits, and my observation of others, I think TMORA has successfully shaped an experience congruent with its mission: “We believe that learning about other cultures enriches our lives. We believe that a small museum can make a difference by fostering the human connections that bind us together in an increasingly global society.” One way the museum extends the experiences is through The Izba, the museum shop, a rich social, visual setting with music, coffee and lovely, high quality including amber jewelry, lacquer art, porcelain, glass, icons, and matryoshka dolls. 
I left with the agreeable feeling of having been to a special event planned for me. Over the last few days I have been able to conjure up these sensations, find new questions, and recall the delight of exploring TMORA.
A Toast To Small Museums
Let me start 2012 with a toast to small museums and to small gems, in particular. My appreciation for small, and just smaller, museums grows with each visit to TMORA, The Rubin Museum of Art (New York), the Wing Luke Museum (Seattle), and The Textile Museum (Washington, DC) as well as from working with the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis.
These are museums that are doing well at being themselves on purpose, including having a sharp sense of purpose. TMORA makes an expressed commitment to being small in its mission statement. Being intentional in declaring a purpose is a great navigational tool for the decisions and choices every museum must make. It gives clear direction; fosters coherence among exhibits, programs, and scholarly work; and pushes for deeper and new perspectives in declared territory. Being small may even discourage going off-mission very far or for very long. Challenges of funding and operating small museums are no less than for larger museums and are often greater. While resources may be extended by resourcefulness and nimbleness, there are limits to what ingenuity can produce. A smaller size helps create the conditions for personalizing experiences and making connections with the audience; Nina Simon at the Museum of Art and History (Santa Cruz) has been exploring and sharing this on Museum2.0.
I am gradually recognizing that the draw of smaller museums for me is how the dimensions of experience–aesthetic, social, physical, and intellectual–merge and unfold across a small space and maintain coherence during a visit. Contained within those smaller spaces, the feel of the experience presses in and makes its imprint. This is what I look forward to finding in museums in the coming year.


  1. Thank you, Jeanne, for this thoughtful exploration of TMORA and your celebration of small museums!
    Lin Nelson-Mayson, Goldstein Museum of Design

  2. Lin, There is more to say about TMORA and certainly more about small museums, including some of the Twin Cities local treasures, like Goldstein Museum of Design, The Bell, The Works, and The Bakken. Local cultural and educational landscapes would be spotty without the mix of large and small museums, encyclopedic and focused, distributed geographically, and with very different invitations to community members for engagement.

  3. Jeanne,

    This is a fun and inspiring blog entry. I'm passing it on to my friends from the Ukraine and Russia. Keep up the good work!