WHITTIER — What a way to start an anniversary.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts promised a year full of surprises to mark its 100th anniversary, and on New Year’s Day it announced a long-term loan from the estate of Myron Kunin, a prominent local collector who assembled a world-class trove of American modern art before his death in 2013. Whatever birthday gifts are left to unwrap in 2015, this one will be hard to beat.
The Kunin collection includes more than 550 works, among them nearly 400 paintings, many by American artists active in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. It’s a potentially transformative addition to the MIA’s permanent holdings, vaulting the museum’s painting collection into “the top 10 in North America,” said Patrick Noon, head of the paintings department.
“It’s actually an incredibly important addition to this collection because we are very weak in American painting, in general,” Noon said. “… We’ve always had a very strong European (painting) collection, and now, suddenly, with the addition of this American component, we become a much more important encyclopedic collection of Western painting.”
Holiday crowds mobbed the three galleries where an exhibition of 80 pieces from the Kunin collection opened Jan. 1. It includes a couple of sculptures but consists mostly of paintings by American artists including Joseph Stella, Andrew Wyeth, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keefe.
“It’s hard to say there are just one or two major things,” Noon said. “It’s like everything seems to be major.”
The selections reveal something of Kunin’s tastes: psychologically penetrating portraits of circus performers by Walt Kuhn, a Stella still life in a spectrum of pastel tones, Rafael Soyer’s social realist New York paintings, a ravishing nude by Aschcan School artist Robert Henri.
There are surprises, too, like the quartet of trick-or-treaters in costume painted by Philip Guston almost two decades before the shift into his later, cartoonish figurative style. And there are absolute showstoppers, like Paul Cadmus’ panoramic suburban street scene or Romare Bearden’s World War II-era painting of three African American folk musicians.
“He was really driven, I think, by works of art that had a visceral appeal to him,” Noon said.
“He just wanted to have beautiful objects and objects that spoke powerfully to him,” he continued. “And that could be social realist subjects. That could be something as lighthearted as burlesque scenes. … He liked the human figure and he liked illustrations of the human figure in action.”
In the 1950s, Kunin purchased a department-store hair salon chain founded by his parents. He transformed it into the multi-billion-dollar Regis Corporation, the world’s largest franchisor of hair salons, with thousands operating in North America and Europe.
He began collecting art sometime around 1980, and entered the market for American modernism almost at the ground floor.
“The interest in American modernism increases annually because it’s an important period in the history of painting,” Noon said. “Prior to 1980, American painting, if it wasn’t post-war, was not terribly of interest to collectors.”
A lot has changed in three decades. Not only has interest in that period of American painting grown, the art market in general has exploded. It would be nearly impossible for a museum like the MIA to assemble this type of collection without a benefactor like Kunin.
“You couldn’t possibly afford it,” Noon said.
Kunin’s interests were broader than just American modernism. His collection of African art was auctioned in November at Sotheby’s in New York, fetching what the auction house reported was a record $41.6 million.
Kunin became a life trustee of the MIA in 1988 and served on the museum’s board for 35 years, including a seven-year period as chair in the ’90s. His previous gifts to the museum include 230 paintings and other works of art.
The hope is that this long-term loan eventually becomes a gift, but Noon said that must wait until Kunin’s family settles the estate.
“For his children and wife to be willing to share this great legacy with the people of the Twin Cities I think is a very important gesture on their part,” he said.
(Left: Walt Kuhn, Wrestler, 1933.)
American Modernism: Selections from the Kunin Collection of American Art
When: Through the end of 2015
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S.
Info: artsmia.org, 870–3000