Water is the base of life. It comprises our oceans and our blood. It inspires ideas, inventions, and opportunities, whether it takes the form of the current in which driftwood is floating or the sweat on a warming beer can.
Winona’s Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) showcases the connections between water, everyday life, and artwork of all styles, time periods, and geography. The museum’s core collection includes household names like Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s famed “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Mixed in with those familiar paintings are works from emerging artists, from Winona as well as around the world.
While “Washington Crossing the Delaware” hangs in The Richard and Jane Manoogian Gallery behind a velvet rope, Nick Wroblewski’s “Sand in Accordance to Water” (the June cover of The Growler) greets visitors at the front desk below a figurehead from a 19th century ship. The juxtaposition highlights how MMAM embraces a range of art and works to help it all flow together.
“We’re looking at great art inspired by water. How I interpret that dictates what kinds of shows you can bring in,” says museum curator Jon Swanson, who has been at MMAM since it opened with three galleries in 2006. “I have quite a bit of latitude.”
Rather than exhibiting pieces through the lens of a historical concept or encyclopedic display, MMAM seeks to tell stories and find similarities and contrasting viewpoints with water as the recurring theme. That sometimes means nautical or naval paintings, but also textiles dyed by the Mississippi River, Wroblewski’s woodcuts, a Hudson River School landscape painting, or even just a minimal pond that dots the background of a portrait. Water is everywhere, and it means many things.
The core collection, which includes what is believed to be Vincent Van Gogh’s first oil painting, helps get visitors in the door. But it’s the rotating galleries and unified tales that make the museum a success. MMAM celebrates 10 years on July 30, and during that time they’ve expanded three times in their riverside location sandwiched between the Minnesota and Wisconsin bluffs of the Mississippi River Valley.
Swanson frequently rotates exhibitions, displaying fine art shows, like the Mississippi River Series, a recent collaboration with The American Society of Marine Artists, alongside untraditional shows like a history of fishing lures collection, a canoe exhibition, and Ink and Water: Sailors’ Tattoos—which opens August 4 and will explore sailor tattoos of the early 20th century. In December, MMAM will show Minnesota Illustrated: The Prints of Adam Turman. With water being a core ingredient of beer, Swanson is even considering a future breweriana exhibit. “I haven’t fully committed,” he says. “But we could have a lot of fun at the openings, obviously.”
For as open as he is to new exhibit ideas, Swanson doesn’t discount the more traditional elements of his museum. MMAM’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” depicting the early morning row before Washington’s surprise attack on Trenton, is one of two remaining copies of the painting in the world. The larger copy hangs in New York; another was destroyed in World War II. This smaller version hung in the White House from the 1980s until it was moved to Winona last year.
“I don’t take for granted what we have in our historic collections. It’s unbelievably strong,” Swanson says. But MMAM is always about connecting themes and seeing where the current leads. “It’s very helpful to have that base collection when I’m reaching out to living artists or when I’m borrowing from other museums or institutions,” Swanson explains. “We’re not just a small historical society. Our collection is much bigger than you expect in a community this size.” And that base, he says, lends legitimacy to the museum, which helps it continue to grow and add new works.
Winona has a population near 25,000, but the art on display at MMAM is comparable with that found in major metropolitan areas. “We threw a big stone in a small pond and those rings are going out to Rochester, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and much further,” explains Swanson. Attendance has grown each year and the museum is currently occupying its full footprint—meaning any future expansions will have to happen with remodels within the building instead of by adding more footage.
Swanson says he chose the city of Winona because it allows direct relationship to the nature that inspired the museum while simultaneously offering visitors a more intimate environment. “As a museum goer, I’m spoiled here. When I’m at the National Gallery of Art in DC, in crowds of people, you can’t really have that quality experience without bumping into people,” Swanson reflects. “Here you get a much more personal and direct connection.”
On May 9, Nicole Chamberlain-Dupree became MMAM’s executive director after nine years on the curatorial team at Mia (Minneapolis Institute of Art). “The staff at one point did a day trip to see the whole collection [at MMAM] and we were blown away,” she remembers. Shortly after the visit, Chamberlain-Dupree began coordinating regular bus trips from the Twin Cities. When the previous director took a new job at Plains Art Museum in Fargo earlier this year, she immediately applied.
As director, Chamberlain-Dupree plans to operate a collaborative and involved museum where staff, volunteers, and committees work hand-in-hand to grow and improve the experience. “This museum is outstanding and great already,” she says. “[Achieving] a feel and energy that makes visitors want to come back” is the key.
Averaging 10-12 shows per year and rotating exhibits every 5-6 weeks, Swanson and the staff at Minnesota Marine Art Museum are offering a close-up experience with the classics, a glimpse at what present-day artists are doing, and a unique flow of ideas nearly as powerful as the river that rushes outside its doors.