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A History of Minneapolis: an Overview by Staff at the Hennepin County Library

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Featuring historical photos and items from the collections of the Hennepin County Library, with contemporary photos from the Phototour of Minneapolis by Chris Gregerson.

Museums, Galleries, and Institutions for the Arts

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By the end of the 1870s Minneapolis residents had begun to take a more active interest in the cultural arts. The 1878 Minnesota State Fair hosted by Minneapolis drew sharp criticism because there wasn't a fine arts exhibit. To counter this criticism an art exhibit, with over fifty oil paintings, was held in September of 1878. In the fall of 1882 an art study group was formed. This group pushed for establishment of a permanent art gallery. The Minneapolis Tribune newspaper backed this crusade. On January 31, 1883 the first meeting of what became the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts was held. The twenty-five founders included commercial, industrial, and professional leaders.

Early leaders of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts included William Watts Folwell, president of the University of Minnesota; John Scott Bradstreet, the city's leading interior designer and furniture craftsman; Theodore J. Richardson, artist and public school art teacher; Ella Martin, a Vassar College graduate and former music teacher; and Frances A. Pray, supporter of numerous charities. The organization's first art loan exhibit was held in 1883. According to historian Jeffrey Hess, this exhibit was a cultural triumph for the Society. Following its success, the Society's directors pursued the idea of a permanent art gallery and school of art; however, financing it was a significant hurdle. It happened that the Minneapolis Athenaeum was just beginning a fund raising campaign to build a public library. The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts members and directors were solicited to help with this effort. For their work, the Society was offered a space in the new public library.

In 1886 the Society's members voted to establish the Minneapolis School of Fine Art, with Douglas Volk as director and principal lecturer. Twenty-eight students attended the first four-month session. In 1889 the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts moved into its new headquarters in the Minneapolis Public Library at Hennepin and Tenth. This became the home for the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts until its own permanent structure, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, at 2400 Third Avenue South, was completed in 1914.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts, July 1999
Photo courtesy of Chris Gregerson

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts houses over 100,000 objects from diverse cultural traditions spanning 4,000 years of world history. The Institute serves the Twin Cities area and the Upper Midwest and is recognized internationally as one of the great museums in America. In a move to tie the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with the downtown area, the city is working to develop Third Avenue as the Avenue of the Arts.

Lumberman Thomas B. Walker, who was deeply committed to bringing arts and culture to the community, acquired a private art collection so extensive in the 1890s that he hired a curator and opened the doors of his home to the public. In 1927, a new building for the Walker Art Gallery was opened at Lyndale and Oak Grove. By 1941, the Walker Art Gallery had changed its name to the Walker Art Center (WAC) and began offering free art programs and films to adults and children. The current WAC building opened in May of 1971 next to the Tyrone Guthrie Theater. The adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, collaboration between the WAC and the Minneapolis Park Board, opened in 1988. The Sculpture Garden promoted the spirit of public art, which continues to be an important part of the cultural history of the city of Minneapolis.

Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. Originally founded in 1934, the current building by Frank Gehry was constructed in 1993. (Photo taken September 1999.)
Photo courtesy of Chris Gregerson

The City founded the Minneapolis Arts Commission in 1974. It was established to foster development of the arts (including architecture and environmental arts, creative writing, dance, film/video, music, theater and visual arts), to stimulate participation and appreciation of the arts by all city residents, to encourage cooperation and coordination between artists and the various arts, to seek financial support of the arts, to act as an advocate for the arts before private and public agencies, to advise the City Council with respect to arts related matters, to strive for high standards of quality in the arts, and to represent the arts whenever possible. The Office of Cultural Affairs was staffed in 1993 and its strategic plan laid out. It oversees a number of programs, projects, and services including the Minneapolis Arts Commission, the Office of Film, Video, Recording and New Media, and Art in Public Places. In the year 2001, the budget for the Office of Cultural Affairs was a nearly 1% percent of the City's total budget.

Masonic Temple at Hennepin Avenue and 6th Street decorated for the Shriners' convention in 1908. Today the building is the Hennepin Center for the Arts.
Minneapolis Collection, BR0200

West Bank art gallery (1966).
Municipal Information Library, Slide Collection, MIL3033.

A significant ingredient for promoting various art forms is having an inspiring work environment. The Masonic Temple building at Hennepin and Sixth was converted into the Hennepin Center for the Arts in 1979 to provide a home for many of the city's cultural institutions including the Minnesota Dance Theatre and School founded by nationally acclaimed choreographer and teacher Loyce Houlton. The adaptive reuse of various older buildings in the Warehouse District, located on the western edge of downtown, became home to numerous artists and art galleries. In recent times the arts community has flourished in Northeast Minneapolis.

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