Director Judi Dutcher (BA '84, JD '87) has assembled a crack team of University of Minnesota alumni to turn on Twin Cities audiences to the Museum of Russian Art.
The thunderous rain outside feels very distant as three English alumni (in photo from left, Maria Zavialova, Misha Dashevsky, and Judi Dutcher)--plus an Anthropology BA--gather in a cozy lamp-lit room within Minneapolis' Museum of Russian Art. The four University of Minnesota graduates represent half the Museum's employees, all as passionate about their education as they are about this gem of a museum tucked in the heart of southwest Minneapolis, where they've landed after some quite disparate journeys.
You may have heard of Judi Dutcher (BA '84, JD '87), the first female Minnesota State Auditor who ran for the DFL endorsement for governor in 2002 and then for lieutenant governor with DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch in 2006. After two terms as State Auditor, she became president of the Minnesota Community Foundation, more than doubling its assets in three years. Dutcher found out from a recruiter that the Museum of Russian Art, then just five years old, was looking for a director. "The skill set that I gained from running the Minnesota Foundation," comments Dutcher, "was a nice fit for where this organization was--still in its infancy in many ways. They were looking for someone who had strength in governance and fundraising."
On her part, Dutcher was looking for a position that engaged the "creative side" which led her to majoring in English (along with Political Science) 25 years ago. She took over the directorship in spring of 1987 and a year later hired a director of operations, curator, and assistant: one fellow English BA, an English PhD in the making, and another U alumna. "What says quality more than a degree from the University of Minnesota?" says Dutcher with the fulsome tone of a brochure. As her employees crack up, she continues with her usual confident enthusiasm, "Employers, when they see that you graduated from the U--and maybe it's a bias I have as an English major--I know that you have achieved that ability to be a critical thinker and to think broadly. The University does an excellent job of training people to be great generalists, especially the College of Liberal Arts."
First on board was Misha Dashevsky (BA '99), Dutcher's assistant. A Russian immigrant, Dashevsky had been managing a grocery story department, while focusing on his band American Monsters (not to mention being a contestant on Jeopardy!). "It was time for a change," he admits. He had visited the Museum of Russian Art (affectionately called TMORA) at its original location in Bloomington and after 2005 in the gorgeously renovated Spanish Revival-style building at 35W on Diamond Lake Road. "When I decided to go fishing for work," recalls Dashevsky, "I just contacted the museum on a cold call, and Judi indicated that there would be some openings. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work in the humanities."
"People tend to put themselves in a box," notes Dutcher, "and think, 'Well, that's not really a position for me.' But for Misha, because of his skill-set and his really strong communication skills--the fact that he had an emphasis on Russian literature at the U didn't hurt either--the position ended up morphing to fit him. You end up kind of creating positions that fit people's skill-sets."
Indeed, that very evening, TMORA was set to present the first in a series of "book club" discussions on Russian literature, organized by Dashevsky and featuring one of his former Russian literature professors at the University. "The practice and the instruction that I got at the U laid a foundation for the communication skills that I have," emphasizes Dashevsky. "I worked at the Legislature, at the Legislative Library there, in one of my first jobs. To be frank, I was surprised at the lack of communication skills that a lot of professional people have, in writing and speaking."
Director of Operations for TMORA, Lana Gendlin Brooks (Anthropology BA, '95) acknowledges herself as "the odd duck" in the room. "We English majors won't hold it against you," jokes Dutcher, who hired Brooks when she returned to Minneapolis after obtaining a Master's in Museum Studies at George Washington University and putting in eight years of museum employment. "I knew it was up-and-coming," Brooks says of the museum. "It was a great fit and great timing for my skills and background and the fact that I'm of Russian descent and speak Russian as well.
"I have to say that English had always been one of my favorite subjects--one of my strongest subjects!" the Journalism minor asserts bravely. "I agree with Misha wholeheartedly that it lays the foundation for communication skills you use so much in any career."
Like the others, Maria Zavialova (PhD in English and Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society, 2008) first visited the museum when it was in Bloomington. "Basically I was just enamored," remembers the Russian native. "I stayed as a volunteer and then was hired as curator. For a Russian specializing in cross-cultural communication, it's an ideal position. My research actually focuses on cross-cultural transfer of meaning: what happens when two cultures begin to communicate and what kinds of errors and misunderstandings can occur. My current job makes me constantly think about it, and these guys," she notes dryly, "help me a lot." The others erupt into laughter. "They've given a lot of feedback," she says with a grin, "and it's been really productive."
Coming directly from Russia to the University of Minnesota, Zavialova found studying English literature here both surprising and inspiring. "I was so carried away with the many courses that were given and how they were set up," she describes. "My education in Leningrad was so different. We had lecture courses: you don't discuss. You never talk to the professor throughout the semester, and at the end you do an oral [examination]. Here you talk to the professor throughout the semester and at the end you do a written [test]. Back in the Soviet education, we read textbooks: we were never given a chance to read primary sources. Here at the U, it's only primary sources: no textbooks to influence your understanding of the subject."
Dutcher, Brooks, and Dashevsky all attended Zavialova's dissertation defense. "We tried to keep the cheering down to a dull roar," Dutcher says. "It was the first time I'd seen that done. And Masha actually ended up weaving some art from Russian artists that I'm particularly fond of into her presentation. So it was really a nice confluence."
"What Masha said about primary sources makes me think about what I enjoyed about Paula [Rabinowitz]'s classes," Dashevsky says of the English professor who advised Zavialova on her dissertation and instructed him. "She always selected really unique primary sources for study; it really broadened my horizons." Dashevsky also mentions Tom Clayton and the "great drama teacher" Archibald Leyasmeyer as influential professors. "I did my senior project with Maria Damon," he goes on, "who you worked with, Masha."
"We did a summer research partnership together," Zavialova explains.
"The senior seminar I took with her I think was called 'Weird Books by Women,'" says Dashevsky brightly, "and now I work with weird women!"
Again the room fills with laughter.
"He's not afraid of us, apparently," observes Dutcher.
Zavialova forges on. "Maria and Paula were also involved with the department's presentation series eNow! and the series of readings starting with Ginsberg's 'Howl'--an unforgettable experience where we read 'Howl' with a large group of people--probably we were 200--in chorus, so we 'howled' it," she describes, smiling. The "Howl@50" program was followed by events celebrating Beckett, Milton, Gertrude Stein, and, this upcoming December 4th, Langston Hughes. "I participated by reading in Russian," says Zavialova, "translating these authors into Russian and reading them."
"Milton in Russian?" asks Dashevsky, amazed.
"Yes!" confirms Zavialova. "[My daughter] Sasha read too, and she dressed up with black wings," a fallen angel.
The multi-generational pull of the University can also be seen in Dutcher's family: her father coached the Minnesota men's basketball team from 1975 to 1986. Dutcher is still involved with the University as a board member of the University Foundation. "I used to joke that we bleed maroon and gold at our house," she says. "But I've really enjoyed keeping up my association with the University. Now I'm in the position of having my oldest son visiting the U and potentially being a freshman there next year."
As a Foundation board member and alumna, Dutcher has seen succeeding presidents put their stamp on the campus, especially recently. "I've enjoyed watching how Robert Bruininks leads the U during these very difficult times. How does the University engage the Legislature and get this ownership from people throughout the state of Minnesota to care and to want to put funds toward keeping education affordable? How can we find that same level of community support for what the University of Minnesota is to the entire state--an economic engine?"
Of course, Dutcher must deal with similar questions as the leader of a member-supported nonprofit organization. In so many ways, the Museum of Russian Art has been the little museum that could, building from a 2002 founding gift from the Honorary Consul to the Russian Federation, Raymond Johnson, through the move--led by former president and director Bradford Shinkle IV--to the current space with its dramatic high ceiling and elegant arches. Both Johnson and Shinkle have received Orders of Friendship from the Russian government, one of the highest orders bestowed on foreign civilians.
"I think it speaks volumes about Russia's openness to what we're trying to accomplish," claims Dutcher, "and what the mission of the museum is, as the only one in the United States solely dedicated to Russian art and artifacts. When I was in Moscow last year and St. Petersburg, you meet with the heads of the museum, and they are amazingly open. You're standing next to some of the greatest paintings in the world, and they're saying, 'Yes, would you like to take this?' It's humbling. I think that they like that we have this cultural-artistic outpost here in the center of the United States. And we have respect for the artistic accomplishments and Russian culture. As a result, we have received unprecedented access to their art."
That access has resulted in startlingly unique shows, such as last fall's exhibition of 17th- and 18th-century religious icons--the first time those artifacts crossed the Atlantic--and this past summer's "Postage Stamps" display, with 300 postal miniatures from the Soviet period. "I think are visitors are so surprised when they see this art for the first time," Brooks says. "It's not what they expect."
"'Where's all the portraits of Lenin?'" quotes Dashevsky, playfully. (Visitors to the exhibit will know that Lenin did not allow his image on postage stamps during his lifetime.)
While the museum is beginning to draw Russian immigrant visitors from all over the United States, their percentage of the museum's total audience is very small. "I'd say maybe 98 percent of our audience is Americans who have very little understanding of Russian history or culture," Dutcher states. "We really view our role as being, 'How do you translate this piece of art or literature to an American audience? How do you instill in them that desire to learn more?' Because if we do our jobs well, we're wetting their appetite to come back to see a new show, to participate in a lecture, maybe learn the language." (Dutcher, surrounded by Russian language specialists, is attempting to learn herself.)
The question remains: Why is this museum in Minnesota? That comment, Dutcher says, is the single most common reaction from visitors. "Why isn't it in New York? Why isn't it in Los Angeles? Well . . . it's here."
The others laugh.
"And I'm glad it's here," she affirms. "My vision for this museum is within ten years to be the national center for Slavic studies, holding national and international symposia.
"What I found interesting when I started here is that some of the 20th Century Russian artists [represented] in shows we're doing are still alive; and we're able to interview these artists and capture for the first time in the English language, 'What did you think when you painted this painting?' Our catalogues are in Russian museums. We were at the Tretyakov Gallery, and we saw our catalogue that we just published on Geli Korzhev in their gift shop."
"I took a picture of Judi standing with it," Brooks remembers.
"It sounds to some people like it's a stretch, but it really isn't," avers Dutcher of their presence in Minnesota. "We have a very important role to play in the history of Russian art, and if we're able to capture, preserve, and advance people's knowledge of this art, then we're doing something right."