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  • Kate Christianson

Changed by Cross Currents

In the course of a two-hour Cross Currents shift in the Rotunda (G230) in July, I had five memorable conversations:

The Red Hat, 2022, Lamar Peterson. Oil on Paper Gift of Mary and Bob Mersky, 2023.15.2 Photo: Maryam Marne Zafar

A young adult, in a shy and somewhat contorted stance — holding both elbows with one leg crossed behind the other, leaning in and tipping his head to look more closely at the artwork — was studying The Red Hat, an oil painting by Lamar Peterson. When I approached him kindly, still giving him space, he welcomed me and shared much about what fascinated him. It turns out, he was an art student and had just decided to focus his energies on painting.

Chief's Blanket (Hanoolchadi), c. 1865. Wool. Gift of Peter and Sally Herfurth, 2022.68.3b Photos: Maryam Marne Zafar

A middle-aged woman with a sweet and gentle smile lingered by the Navajo Chief's Blanket; we examined it more closely with a flashlight, while I shared a few things; then she confessed appreciatively, and with a thick accent, that she knew very little about art but loved Mia and came regularly just “to look and learn.”

Another young adult, younger than the first one, strode up to me, put out his hand to introduce himself, and asked if I might field a question. "Of course," I said, and shared my name in return. "What art in this museum gives you meaning?" he asked, essentially wondering how that whole process worked. "I come here regularly and like asking people about this; maybe you could tell me something."

Yamantaka Mandala, 1991. Monks of the Gyuto Tantric University. Colored silicate and adhesive on wood. Gift of Funds from the Gyuto Tantric University, 3M, Construction Materials, Inc. and The Asian Art Council, 92.44 Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Art

A middle-aged man was chatting with his companion about the Yamantaka Mandala, just outside the Rotunda, for quite awhile, so I went over to introduce myself and said, "You seem to know a lot about this artwork." He smiled and said, "I came here every three or four days while it was being made." We talked about that for a bit, and then he asked, "What's your favorite artwork in the museum; could you show us?" That's when I realized the two of them were probably on a date —!— and I took them on a quick trip to the Africa galleries.

Toward the end of my shift, a senior couple approached me to talk about how Egyptian art is displayed at Mia, a beautiful lead-in to that month’s Cross Currents theme of evolving museum practices. Somehow from there, we ended up talking about Gudmar Olovson (1936-2017), a prominent European sculptor whose work this couple had in their home; they were wondering if Mia, down the road, might like to have it.

I had 45 conversations during my shift that night. Most were brief, hopefully helpful, and pleasant (using the flashlight, sharing a magnifying glass, introducing Cross Currents, steering people to the rest rooms, etc.), but the heady mix of these five gave me pause. I left the museum feeling more personally connected to our city, and I've felt so ever since.

As a result, I've rejiggered how I approach my time at the museum. Thanks to the Cross Currents format — with its wonderful blend of both facilitated looking and ad hoc conversations — I’ve been reminded in the kindest and most honest of ways that I'm a person first, guide second. And while I relish gathering a wealth of information about art in preparation for a tour or shift at Mia — learning what I can, in order to share it with others — it’s clear to me now that meaning comes first: the meaning that arises from being together, (which cannot be forced), as well as the meaning or meanings a viewer might discover individually while looking slowly and closely at the art. To be honest, I'm still savoring the wonder and the possibilities in that.

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