The fine art of collecting: Herman Milligan’s multidisciplinary journey

Herman Milligan leans in on art collecting. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create – and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.

Minneapolis, Maastricht and the Milligans: Personal art collecting reflections

Some years back, shortly after returning from my almost 10 years as a resident of Maastricht, the Netherlands, an artist friend urged that I attend an event at Soo Visual Arts Center.

The SooVAC show was featuring a dialogue by local art collectors, one she insisted I meet who had just begun collecting her work. The space was thick with art lovers, and although I did get to meet Herman Milligan and his wife Connie Osterbaan-Milligan that night, it is only recently that we’ve finally gotten to know one another.

The acquaintance is indeed long overdue. My friend rightly assumed that the Milligans and I would have much in common.

Prior to moving to Maastricht, I had begun collecting the works of local artists like Brant Kingman, Julie JAO, Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger, Geza Brunow (now out of New Orleans), Aldo Moroni and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design’s own late, great sculptor-professor, Mike Bigger. Having enjoyed modest success as a public relations executive, and owning a massive three story duplex in the Seward neighborhood with miles of wall and display space, I deeply believed that the best way to support local and emerging artists was by buying their works. In this the Milligans are kindred spirits.

It was in Maastricht, the founding city of The European Fine Art Fair, arguably the world’s leading fine arts fair for serious collectors, that I experienced firsthand the dizzying heights of world-class art collecting, attending regularly and learning a much about the fine art of collecting.

TEFAF is a living museum where the action is acquisition. There, you rub elbows with potentates and Presidents, sheiks and rock stars, CEOs and chieftains, many of whom fly in on private jets to be chauffeured to the cavernous Maastricht Exhibition & Congress Center, (MECC) where TEFAF is staged, perhaps to buy a small Jan Van Eyck or an 8,000 year-old ceramic antiquity that might have lost its place of honor at some world famous museum. Once a year, MECC becomes a bona fide Mecca for collectors and wannabes.

So meeting and learning more about a respected art collector like Herman Milligan has topped my list for quite some time.

Maastricht fly in — Minneapolis flyover?

In an MPR story a few years back it was suggested that the Twin Cities was a “flyover” art market, and local gallery owner David Petersen remarked that a Twin Cities’ visual art commercial infrastructure had long been lacking. The piece also noted a perceived gap between Minnesota’s relative wealth and what collectors were willing to spend on local artists’ work. Many local artists admitted that they first had to make a reputation outside of the Twin Cities before being able to claim a respectable fee here.

So what gives? Our 2015 Creative Vitality Index provides neither qualitative nor quantitative data on who spends how much on local art or where they go to buy it. But part of Herman Milligan’s business is to get a better handle on this critical part of our creative class mix.

Who buys art and why? According to a recent survey conducted by Bank of America U.S. Trust, “collectors still overwhelmingly buy art for aesthetic and lifestyle reasons, but they are increasingly interested in how their art behaves as a capital asset.” The same study states that a large number of collectors, particularly younger patrons, are likely to enjoy “an arty party” — the community of other collectors on the “global circuit” as a driver for collecting.

Milligan’s collecting preferences do not necessarily mirror these national norms. He is authentically interested in the artists whose works he collects, whether local or national, emerging or established. A tour of his home collection is a bit like a lesson in the sociology of art collecting, which is entirely fitting since both Milligans are sociology professors. My personal tour of their vast collection lasted well over an hour, and we never even hit the second floor!

What strikes one about both Herman and Connie is their interest in relationship and backstory — their art collection reflects both intellectual curiosity about the work and the makers. Each piece has a story that is shared with a reverence for the process that brought it to life. This type of collecting exudes a rare quality that acknowledges what I call the “maker’s almost holy drive to create.”

Beyond the high value they place on developing personal relationships with the artists, the Milligans authentically believe in the value of directly supporting art and artists by buying their art. This sets them apart from those collectors who seem more vested in parties or prestige.

Are things improving for the actual Minneapolis art market? Milligan thinks the Twin Cities commercial art scene is growing healthier: “I believe things have improved,” he notes. “There appears to be more galleries opening, both for- and non-profit, that have different orientations or a diversity in the work and programming they present.” He cautions that, “The jury might still be out on how long they will last.” He asserts that there are galleries that continue to do well with the model they developed years ago, perhaps with some tweaking, and others that are now combining curating with a sales component — such as combining art and textiles, clothing, jewelry, etc., to attract business.

Milligan debunks the myth that a community with too many non-profit sources might actually hurt the artists by somehow ‘diluting’ the value of the art. “I would not equate the lack of a successful for-profit art scene to the abundant non-profit visual art sector here,” he cautions. “The two have very different operating philosophies and volumes of activity that have yet to be studied. Furthermore, there are more for-profit galleries opening over the last year, so there must be a feeling that the market is healthy. Many art collectors I know, including myself, purchase from both sectors.”

Moreover, he argues that a commercial “visual art” infrastructure has always been present, but perhaps not so effectively managed and advertised. “The commercial art infrastructure has not been properly dimensioned, meaning until the past four or five years there has not been an ability to assess changes from a creative class perspective at a city or neighborhood level.” And he thinks that many commentators about this topic are using a more restrictive definition. “There have been galleries that have been poorly managed, therefore going out of business, regardless of gentrification or other pressures, and some that are still active yet have bad reputations for how they treat their artists, so people ‘in the know’ don’t shop there.”

Milligan waxes very positive about certain artist collectives such as the Rosalux Gallery, Northrup King, Solar Arts, and other similar entities. “A board I serve on,” he continues, “Artspace Projects, is the nations’ largest developer of affordable live/work space for artists, and another positive example.” Artists in these buildings can showcase their work through individual studio or programmed building events. Milligan argues for “a better dimensioning” of what it means to be a visual art space that sells and properly markets work.

Milligan proudly displays his original 45 collection. Photo by Susan Schaefer
Milligan proudly displays his original 45 collection. Photo by Susan Schaefer

A most modern Renaissance man

Many outside Milligan’s inner circle think of this erudite gentleman as all business or scholarship. He was, after all, a senior executive at Norwest and then Wells Fargo from the late 1980’s until 2010, plying his ample analytic talents in varying divisions and projects. He is well regarded as a project management expert in the financial serves, non-profit, health care, advertising and other industries. His Fulton Group provides marketing research, competitive intelligence and fundraising development services to an impressive group of clients. And Milligan’s reputation for board service is legendary. He gives generously of his time, wisdom and resources.

However, under this business and corporate veneer lies the soul of a true creative class guy.

Back when Milligan was but a teen he was well on his way as a performing artist. A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, his family relocated to Trenton, N.J., when he was a child. Early on, smitten with music, he played the clarinet in his junior high school band and sang in the school, church and Mercer County choirs. Music, in fact, was his entrée to collecting.

Like most teens, young Milligan was concerned with being cool and hip. Back in those days, Trenton was alive with musical influences from both NYC and my hometown, Philadelphia, where Milligan could keep current with the latest and greatest sounds and dance steps from “American Bandstand” and the “Jerry Blavat” television shows. Weaned on soul and rock and roll, he became enamored with 45 records with their intriguing graphics. “I found the packing and labeling of the records to be fascinating and kept collecting all throughout high school.” Thus, the birth of a collector.

While Milligan added high academic notes to his repertoire, earning his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Minnesota, where he won a national fellowship in criminal deviance, he continued to hit the high notes playing tenor sax, which he had studied during the evening at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Milligan tells an illuminating story about his musical background: He played tenor sax with the Cecil Taylor Black Music Ensemble at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he was a part of a group of black students (and eventually white and other students of color) who went on strike for six weeks in 1969 to demand the establishment of black studies department and other issues. As part of the group’s 13 demands, they brought the illustrious Cecil Taylor to teach in the school of music!

Milligan muses, “Cecil was the first composer-musician. While still living in Cambridge prior to grad school, he had nominated me for a Ford Fellowship in Music to be completed at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College. Robert Ashley and Bob Maraldo were the co-directors at that time. I was the second of ten fellows to work in the recording studio and use the Moog synthesizer over a three-week period. I had enough money to hire musicians to play a 12-tone composition I wrote. It was a wonderful experience.”

A treasured sculpture, "Head of an Opera Singer." Photo by Susan Schaefer
A treasured sculpture, “Head of an Opera Singer.” Photo by Susan Schaefer

Multiple parts of the arts

Milligan’s own creative bent doesn’t end with his musicality — he learned photography from a friend in Cambridge during his stint there. “She taught me the basics of darkroom development, exposure, etc. I took pictures, developed them and began going to museums and shows to learn more about the subject matter,” he reminisces.

With his record collection already well underway and his photography appreciation growing, Milligan experienced his art collection eureka moment. “While working in Boston at Interfaith Housing Corporation, I asked the accountant who was from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was heading home for vacation if he would bring me a piece art back if I gave him money. He agreed. I told him to bring back something that he thought would be representative of Puerto Rican art; I still have that beautiful elongated hand-carved mask.”

When Milligan came to the U of M for grad school he continued studying photography in the fine arts department. A few years later, he joined a photography collective that was part of a group led by well-known Twin Citians Seitu Jones and Ta-coumba Aiken. Together, they established an African American Culture Center in Minneapolis located at 31st & Nicollet boasting a darkroom. Many local photographers used the facilities. “We held shows, lectures, and exhibitions in which I participated,” he remembers. “It was then I began to buy or trade prints with other photographers, as well as buying photography books.”

Through Milligan’s friend Les Edwards, who was in the U of M’s master’s journalism program, he met the late Ted Hartwell, curator of photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, who had an open-door policy. Milligan visited Hartwell to learn and see original prints in the collection by Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Edward Steichen and more, and was introduced to local photographers.

His passion has never abated, nor has his authentic interest in supporting young and aspiring artists of all media. At The Fulton Group, he founded the REFINEDr website and a curatorial platform, “Art4Good,” as a means to support Twin Cities non-profit arts organization programming and artists. As an advisory board member for SooVAC, he created “Collect Call,” an exhibition concept to introduce the community to the collector’s world and to promote dialogue around the practice. He’s curated An Evening of Jazz as part of the Katherine E. Nash Gallery exhibition Minnesota Funk curated by Howard Oransky.

Privately, I’m hoping to woo Milligan and Connie for a private trip back to Maastricht during TEFAF. If I can swing it, I’ll get my good pal, Frank Steijns, the world famous carillon player and first violinist for Maastricht’s global musical phenomenon, André Rieu, to help us organize a little jazz concert during TEFAF at the MECC. This would really add a bit of Minneapolis class to the concept of creative. Let’s wait and see.