Back when we launched our first-ever cohort, Kaywin Feldman had an idea. Director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), Feldman came to our program intent on improving the museum’s gift shop, which had an outdated model and cumbrous space. Over time, Feldman’s idea evolved into a larger strategy to change the experience of entering the museum. Now more than twice the number of people enter the museum than when she inherited her role (last year, attendance hit 900,000).
Feldman’s passion for art runs deep. She has led art institutions for more than 20 years and says she has never known a more challenging time to do so. But she keeps her desire to make a difference front of mind, helping her make decisions when the answers aren’t clear.
It’s a hard time to lead an art institution. What keeps you going?
The magical moments in the work that I do, like seeing a member of the community have a remarkable experience in our building. Whether they are having a one-on-one experience with a work of art or are at an event — it’s that moment of impact on an individual that feeds my soul.
What’s it like to oversee a staff of 250?
It’s wonderful. As you can imagine with a group of people who work in an art museum, they’re completely devoted. They’re here because they believe in our mission. They’re inspired by and are passionate about it. We have a very strong work culture here, and we did a lot of work over the past few years to identify and cultivate it.
Mia means “mine.” What is the biggest contributing factor to Mia being for everybody?
Our mission is to be accessible. Free admission is the most important part of being accessible. With free admission, you can come to see one work of art. You can run in for 20 minutes; you can come every week. We also make sure the labels describing our art are interesting and approachable.
How does Mia remain relevant in an industry dating back thousands of years?
Our value proposition is a fresh take on a classic art museum where family and friends can gather to celebrate human creativity, and we take it seriously. As a historic institution that houses some of the world’s greatest treasures (which we nurture, care for and protect), we carry a lot of weight, but we see that as an opportunity. We want to be a place that’s fresh, lively and doesn’t take itself too seriously, so we gather once a week to discuss what’s trending locally, nationally and internationally and how it relates to our collection.
What will change with Mia over the next 20 years?
Nothing and everything. Nothing will change in that we will always nurture, protect and care for great works of art. When you come to the museum, you will always be able to have a personal experience with a great work of art. The art is sacred, and that will never change. What will change is the way in which we engage people. The technology. The interpretation of the works of art. The programs, activities and events around it.
What advice do you have for leaders of large teams?
Always notice peoples’ haircuts. It shows that you’re observant and you notice. People want to be noticed.
Be nice to people. In other words, do unto others. People just want you to be nice to them.
Follow your moral compass (or your desire). This is something I speak a lot about now because of the tumultuous times we live in. It’s been hard for me as an individual and as a leader to manage this institution in a time when I feel like the government doesn’t reflect my values or those of our institution. How we navigate during these times has been difficult, and so my moral compass is paramount for me.