Expanding its niche

// The Museum of Russian Art turns 10 //

The Museum of Russian Art rolls out a sort of greatest-hits show this month, featuring popular paintings from seven previous exhibitions, all in celebration of its 10th anniversary.


Paintings in the Soviet-era style known as Socialist or Russian Realism remain the bread-and-butter of the museum, founded in 2002 in a small Bloomington gallery by art dealer Raymond Johnson to display his large collection of such work, which Johnson assembled after the 1991 dissolution of the former Soviet Union. But the ambitious little museum has evolved far beyond just one style of art and one man’s collection.


Call it a niche museum if you want, but they’ve carved out a pretty large niche. Memorable exhibitions from recent years featured 17th- and 18th-century painted Russian Orthodox icons from Yaroslavl, a Volga River trading hub; vivid color photographs of the Silk Road originally commissioned by Czar Nicholas II; millennia-old Ukrainian artifacts; traditional textiles and lacquer work; and the prints and paintings of non-conformist artist Oleg Vassiliev, whose graphically innovative work combines the personal and political.


It’s been seven years now since the museum moved into the former Mayflower Congregational Church building, a gorgeous example of Spanish Colonial Revival-style architecture (if that seems incongruous, it is no more so than a Russian art museum making its home in Scandinavian Minnesota) and five years since the museum incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.


“We are definitely moving from a founder-based organization to a public organization,” said Lana Gendlin Brooks, director of external relations for the museum.


Gendlin Brooks is leading the mission to grow the museum’s roughly 1,000-member support base. A membership drive launching this fall aims to add another 500–1,000 members to the rolls.


The museum has some significant exhibitions in the works, including a retrospective on Russian-American impressionist Nicolai Fechin and, in 2013, a major show marking the 400th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. But they’ll be doing so without the vital contributions of museums in Russia.


Russia’s Ministry of Culture placed an embargo on art loans to U.S. institutions after a federal court here ruled in favor of an Orthodox Jewish sect’s claim on cultural artifacts still in Russia. Art exchanges have been frozen for about two years.


Gendlin Brooks said the museum maintains good relations “with many well-esteemed Russian museums” but, for now, politics has stepped between those museums and the far-flung outpost of Russian art and culture that calls Minneapolis home.