Newly-designed Minneapolis Institute of Art… and its odd smell

By Angela Whited

Conceptually, life as an art critic is infinitely appealing. The image of oneself as a snooty, bespectacled New Yorker, dressed all in severe black, snubbing everything in sight is the secret joy of every pasty Midwesterner who ever inched her way sideways into academia.

When I volunteered to review the new Target wing of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), I was excited for about three minutes. Then I realized I didn’t have a clue about what I’d be doing. I wasn’t artsy, confident, or harsh enough to deal with the task at hand.

So I enlisted some help from my friend Sarah P, who I assumed would know more than me since she can dance.
We decided to make an event of our visit and arrived on Saturday in full art student regalia: scarves, hats, big jewelry, furry vests, etc. We browsed and wandered until we found ourselves, somehow, in the new wing.

The transition from the original building to the new wing is seamless, since the photography display room on the second floor transcends assignment to either building. (It’s semi-revolutionary.)
The “Highlights from the Harrison Collection of Fine Photographs,” though it lacks a snappy title, is the only Grand Opening exhibit still on display. The Target wing opened on June 11, so most of the kick-off exhibits have expired in the past few weeks.

The expansion has allowed the MIA to increase the size of their Chinese and Japanese art exhibits, now among the largest in the country. Unfortunately, the necessary reorganization this required made it impossible for me to find my favorite piece in the Asian art collection, “The Giant Rutabaga from Fu-Yang,” an enormous ink and paper painting of a giant rutabaga (the website has since tragically informed me that it is no longer on display).

As we stared at the maps provided by the institute, we couldn’t figure out exactly where the original building ended and the new wing began. The multi-colored diagrams make the new wing seem much larger than it is, so I made the executive decision to start at the very beginning by leaving the institute and reentering directly into the new wing from the ground level.

The MIA now makes a U shape, in the center of which is a courtyard that houses typical courtyard things: benches, trees, a lovely view of the back of the art school. Cut straight through the U from the 3rd Ave. side of the institute, and keep walking until you find yourself facing a building labeled “Target Wing” in gold letters. You’re in the right place.

The façade is white, with a central circular indentation surrounded by a series of rectangular indentations. The rectangular indentations are interrupted by either one or three short columns, that bring to mind the image of bars.

The view of the front of the new wing is interrupted by the sculpture “Labyrinth” by John Willenbecker, which, alas, looks nothing like David Bowie in stretchy pants. Rather, this steel and granite sculpture looks as if it fell off the front of the building and landed upright. You can walk underneath it and look up through a circular hole that seems the same size as the central indentation on the building.

We entered the Target Wing around 2 p.m. on a Saturday and saw two institute employees at the front desk and a barren coat check. The myriad of shining empty coat hangers matched the fat blocks of grainless red wood that trim the doors opening into the rotunda.

The rotunda itself is impressive, as most rotundas are. Standing in the center of the first floor with your head thrown back you can see straight to the top where the filtered skylight is painted a friendly fluffy blue.

Around the rotunda, however, the walls are stark and bare. The rooms on the first floor all require appointments to use: the art research library, the print study room, the community room. They are dark and locked – cozy it is not.

In fact, until you reach the third floor, the building isn’t very inviting. The bar theme from the outside is repeated inside, with the rotunda’s support columns obstructing the view from one side of the central room to the other.
I started wishing I hadn’t assumed my pseudo-posh alter-ego. Art students didn’t seem like the sort of people the building would approve of.

The staircase is wide, with white marble steps, white walls, and an enormous three-story set of windows facing 1st Ave. The brilliance of the white light is intimidating on the staircase, particularly when the spiral of the stairs lowers the ceiling just before you turn the final corner to the second floor.
The juxtaposition of the large stainless steel sculpture hanging in the center of the staircase with the old homes seen through the window, however, is somehow reassuring. It renders the modern art housed in the new wing more familiar.
It was somewhere on the second floor that we realized the building didn’t smell right. It didn’t smell bad; it was simply devoid of the faint and particular odor found in museums, libraries, and old houses that gives you your bearings and reminds you to speak softer than normal.

The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program boasts a gallery on the second floor that bears an uncanny structural resemblance to the Weyerhaeuser Boardroom, or would if it weren’t housing gigantic paintings of pigs done by Freddy Muñoz. (Personally I’d much prefer the pigs to the dead people that currently hang in Weyerhaeuser, but no one asked me.)
The third floor of the Target Wing is by far the most inviting. You’ve finally reached warmer, more appropriate light coming from the friendly skylight that seemed so far away on the first floor.

The gallery displaying the art deco and modern furniture is done more masterfully, with the most appropriate balance between objects and negative space, than any of the other new galleries. Though it doesn’t smell right yet, the third floor reassures you that you’re in an art museum and not the capitol or a courthouse. I would have been perfectly content up there even without my disguise.