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Small museum seeks big visibility
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The Minnesota Museum of American Art presents the photography of Wing Young Huie in its new space along the riverfront. (Photo courtesy of Wing Young Huie)
Minneapolis is home to a number of well-known museums. But relatively few people know about the only art museum in St. Paul. Until recently, the Minnesota Museum of American Art sat hidden from view in the upper floors of the Landmark Center. Now it's making a big move in order to get the attention of people on the street.

St. Paul, Minn. — At the corner of Kellogg Avenue and Market street in downtown St. Paul, staff put the finishing touches on the Minnesota Museum of American Art's new exhibit hall. It's in a section of the Ramsey County Government Center, formerly known as the West Publishing Building. The museum space used to be the garage. Executive Director Bruce Lilly says it's all about location.

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Image MMAA's new exhibition space

"The essential piece is really having a street level presence," says Lilly. "We're in the neighborhood of the other cultural organizations in town, right down the street from the science museum, kitty corner from the library, we have sight lines to the Ordway. People will notice us and when they see us they'll wonder where we came from... not knowing we have a 75-year history."

People might not be familiar with the MMAA in part because it's both moved and changed its name several times. For the last 25 years the museum has lived above eye level, up in the second and fourth floors of the Landmark Center. Lilly says the space was lovely, and served the museum's needs for many years, but visually it looked as though the museum was stuck in an ivory tower. People simply didn't notice it.

"The reality is we don't exist in people's minds. I think we need to reinvent ourselves but then I can strike the word reinvent because if we don't exist in the first place than we're not reinventing - we're creating. So this is a creation," says Lilly.

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Image Wing Young Huie and Tara Simpson-Huie

The MMAA's first show in the new space is an exhibition of photographs by Wing Young Huie. Huie is best known for his Lake Street project, in which he posted large portraits of Minneapolis residents of all backgrounds in store windows along Lake Street. Huie's most recent photographs - both black-and-white and color - are the results of a trip he took with his wife across the United States looking for Chinese communities. Huie himself is Chinese American; he was raised in Duluth.

"I always wondered what it would have been like if I had grown up in San Francisco, Chinatown or even on the west coast in Seattle where there are many more Asians. Or if I had grown up in the south," says Huie. "One of my goals on this trip was to find a Chinese person with a southern accent, and we found one! There's quite a few."

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Image The Year of the Horse

Huie's images portray Chinese-Americans of all varieties - cowboys, Elvis fans, gamblers, businessmen, laughing teenagers. Executive Director Bruce Lilly says Huie's work is a perfect match for the new space, and for the new image he wants the museum to convey: youthful, edgy, diverse, and on the street. Lilly says he doesn't even like to use the term "museum"; it sounds dead to him. He'd rather the MMAA had the feel of a brewpub.

"It's creating a sense of place," says Lilly. "A place to meet somebody for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. A place to bring your family on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, to see a film series or listen to music or have a great big party."

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Image MMAA Executive Director Bruce Lilly

Lilly says the Ramsey County Government Center is still solidifying it's renovation plans. He says his ultimate dream is to expand in the center to about twice the museum's current size, with a coffeeshop and gift store. But he doesn't want the MMAA to become the next Walker or Weisman. He says there are enough of those already.

The Minnesota Museum of American Art celebrates the opening of its new space on Kellogg Avenue in downtown St. Paul with a party and Wing Young Huie's exhibition "9 Months in America: An Ethnocentric Tour."

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