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“A world-class city deserves a world-class art museum,” declared Joe Spencer, City of St. Paul’s Art and Culture Director, at Saturday evening’s soft launch for the Minnesota Museum of American Art’s new, 3500-square foot Project Space in Lowertown. And this looks to be a well-positioned site for such a museum: right on the light rail line, the street-side suite of adjoining gallery rooms have taken over the first floor of the grand old Pioneer Building on 4th and Robert streets. Decked out, end to end, with large windows overlooking the street, the museum’s cheerfully lit galleries pull the passerby’s eye inside, to the exhibition space and artwork within. With its mix of airy openness and thoughtfully designed nooks and crannies, the new Project Space offers a touch of grandeur, but also an intimate viewing experience. It’s going to be a welcome venue for showing all kinds of work in a variety of media, both large- and small-scale.

Arts community well-wishers, funders and Minnesota Museum of American Art members and staff celebrate the opening of the museum’s new Project Space in Lowertown on Saturday, December 1. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler

In her remarks to the crowd of museum funders, members and arts community well-wishers on hand to celebrate the site’s eagerly-anticipated opening, MMAA Executive Director Kristin Makholm called it an “enormous evening and one a long time coming.” The museum has a two-year lease on this space in the historic building, something she describes as an important first step in what has been a painstaking, very deliberate process of establishing a permanent home. After successfully touring a handful of storied selections from the MMAA collection around the state over the last couple of years, Makholm came to a realization: “If you don’t have a home, someplace to call your own in which to host programming and show this amazing collection of work, this isn’t going to go anywhere in the long term.”

The museum’s board chair, real estate developer Dick Zehring, observes that down the road they’ll need a space ten times the size of this one just-opened – around 35,000 square feet – to realize their long-term vision for housing the museum’s holdings and staff offices, and to provide ample room for educational and community programming and exhibitions. In fact, there’s serious talk of eventually taking over more of the Pioneer Building, which has been left, too long, a derelict landmark in the city center – an idea with real promise, I think. Indeed, Makholm says, staff, funders and board members are all actively investigating the potential of this site for further expansion and redevelopment to that end.

MMAA Executive Director Kristin Makholm, in front of the new Pioneer Building space. Photo by Paul Shambroom

For the next two years, though, Makholm says the newly renovated MMAA Project Space provides the long-homeless museum a “foot in the door in this historic building, and a foot on the ground in St. Paul” from which to offer meaningful community programs and exhibitions. The long-awaited move comes as a result of substantial financial support from the Lowertown Future Fund and a $150,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as donations from individuals and local philanthropic organizations.

The Project Space won’t have regular gallery hours until January; they’re still putting the finishing touches on construction. In the meantime, there will be a number of pop-up programs on the site, and there’s already an exhibition of landscape paintings on view, “Painting the Place Between,” up through February 17. For more information on upcoming programs, news and information at the Minnesota Museum of American Art’s just-opened Project Space, visit http://www.mmaa.org/pages/Pop-upPrograms.

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