Patrons of the arts

Local collectors share personal treasures at Soo Visual Arts Center

Herman Milligan and Connie Osterbaan-Milligan at home. Credit: Dylan Thomas

Most people would consider the abundant windows perforating the façade of a 1920s-era, foursquare-style house on a corner lot in the Fulton neighborhood an asset.

The homeowners, Herman Milligan and Connie Osterbaan-Milligan, certainly agree. But they also face a problem common among avid art collectors — limited wall space — and the windows, they acknowledge, don’t help.

Selections from the Milligans’ eclectic personal collection of photographs, paintings, masks and work by emerging artists, many of them local, go on display this month at Soo Visual Arts Center. Theirs is one of eight collections featured “Collect Call: Exploring Art Patronage,” an unusual type of art show that promises insight into the vagaries of taste, the collectors’ impulse and the role of the patron in the local arts ecosystem.

That isn’t to say these collectors consider themselves “patrons,” a term several rejected. Maybe it sounds archaic today, conjuring memories of Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius II prodding Charlton Heston as the temperamental Michelangelo in “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”

“It’s not in my vocabulary,” said Jim Rustad, who lives in a 43rd-floor St. Paul condo where the expansive views compete with the art on his walls. Visitors crowd into Rustad’s laundry room three or four at a time to view his mini-gallery of laundry-related photographs.

Rustad, retired from a career in law in finance, said he simply buys “interesting things that make me feel good,” mostly from local galleries. And if that financial support helps local galleries and artists to survive or even thrive, then that’s a good thing, he argued, because it means more people will be exposed to local art.

“I don’t mean to be showing off,” he added. “I just have this stuff because it’s fun and it’s fun to share.”

Milligan doesn’t use the word patron, either, and for him a more important aspect of collecting is the relationships he forms with artists and their work. He did, however, acknowledge the important role of collectors’ financial support for the arts locally and nationally.

It was a point driven home to Milligan in the 1990s, when he was serving on a National Endowment for the Arts grant panel. In the wake of a notorious 1994 Minneapolis performance by the artist Ron Athey — and the subsequent furor, tainted by homophobia (Athey is gay)  — conservative members of Congress called for drastic cuts to the endowment’s budget.

It may be an extreme example, but it highlights Milligan’s argument: As important as grants are to artists and arts organizations, they can be a tenuous line of support. The cutbacks of the Great Recession offer a more current example.

“That’s what led me to this thing about really supporting the artist,” he said.

Living with art

Rustad said he suspects there is “some kind of gene” shared by collectors. He began as a child with stamps, rocks and magic tricks; for Milligan, it was LPs.

Tom Arneson previously collected locally produced artisan goods, especially ceramics, and in the ’90s published the North Country Artisan Directory, a guide to local crafts. But about a dozen years ago, Arneson, who works in public health, purchased a pencil drawing by Minnesota artist Stanford Fenelle: a hunting dog, one of Fenelle’s most popular subjects

The drawing was one of the first pieces in Arneson’s impressive collection of Minnesota art, which is hung salon-style in his 9th-floor apartment near Loring Park. Within arm’s reach of his dining room table there’s a contemporary Jim Denomie portrait hanging below several small landscapes; a dynamic Abstract Expressionist-style painting by Urban Couch; a large print based on a George Morrison drawing; and lovely, autumnal Fenelle landscape in gouache, a painting that took first prize in a 1937 Minneapolis Institute of Arts show.

“That’s the sort of thing I like to collect,” Arneson said: pieces that tell stories.

Those stories are sometimes about the collectors, themselves. The Milligans met as graduate students in sociology at the University of Minnesota and began collecting art together early in their relationship.

They don’t always agree on what they like, but they’ve given pride of place in their house to two street scenes by Michael Lester, a Polish artist who lived and painted in Jamaica. They hang over the living room mantel.

“We just liked the images,” explained Connie Osterbaan-Milligan. And, after three decades, “we’ve never gotten tired of looking at them.”

Another of the collectors featured in the show is Suzy Greenberg, the SooVAC founder who died unexpectedly last year at age 44. Carolyn Payne, the gallery’s executive director, said Greenberg amassed a large personal collection, much of it work by artists who showed in her gallery. It’s a collection largely shaped by relationships; between Greenberg, a practicing artist, and colleagues whose careers she followed and nurtured.

“I think she would have really liked this show,” Payne said.


Collect Call: Exploring Art Patronage

When: Nov. 9–17. A panel discussion with collectors is 6 p.m.–8 p.m. Nov. 14.

Where: Soo Visual Arts Center, 2638 Lyndale Ave. S.

Info: 871-2263,