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Breaking news, upcoming events, and periodic musings from the Weisman Art Museum.

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November 22, 2008

The Need for a Developmental Leader

We have cast our votes and elected our political leaders for the next four years. Now as President-elect Obama is selecting his team, we are learning more about the team of people that we hope will lead us through this economic crisis (and all those other problems) into a more sustainable, just, and united future. For Obama to fulfill the promises he made during his campaign—especially by inspiring the hope that this can be a government of the people, by the people, for the people—he will need not just to pull together a team of strong leaders able to inspire vision and get things done, he will also need to bring together leaders that have the ability to grow and develop the American populace.

For a long time, we have learned to be complacent. We have been sucked into the black hole of television and the mass media where we become passive receptors of all that is thrown at us. We’ve learned that it’s easier to pay an expert to solve a problem than to solve a problem ourselves. If there is one thing we’ve been taught time and time again, it is that our politicians can and will solve our problems for us. We have been told over and over again that it is our civic responsibility to vote and that’s where our responsibility ends.

Now we face problems we’ve seen before and problems our parents could never have imagined. We are beyond a time when a strong, charismatic leader could pull us through. There are too many problems that are far too complex for any one person to solve. The solutions to these problems won’t come from the top-down. Obama recognized that and it is clear that he pulled together a campaign that involved an incredible number of people organized more powerfully than perhaps has ever been done before. It is going to have to be from those people, and all people, coming together and growing together if real change is to occur. Regulation alone won’t address the environmental, economic, and justice problems we now face. It will require us to reinvent ourselves in a 21st century world. And not just ourselves, but our businesses, institutions, and bureaucracies. The type of leadership we need now cannot just inspire us and it cannot muscle its way through these problems. It will need to develop us to adapt to these challenges that will not be solved otherwise. The leadership that will serve us best will need to help us reinvent ourselves and support us in doing so.

That leadership will also need to recognize that we learn slowly, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t invest in our learning. Change doesn’t happen quickly. It isn’t a light switch waiting to be turned on. Real change takes time, happens slowly, and comes only through the development and growth of an entire people. In short, Obama and his team will need to develop the American people into leaders ready to adapt to the challenges we will face in the coming years. Doing that will be no easy task and also will not be a singular one; it will be an ongoing process. But first, Obama has to stoke the fires that he ignited in so many people during that campaign.

November 20, 2008

Minnesota Pro Bowl

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My grandson, Jack, after visiting the polls in 2006. He won't trash talk you - but he may need a diaper change.

After the November 4 election I’d planned to turn my blog posts more towards art and its evolving role in public affairs. I’d hoped to focus less on electoral politics, but here in Minnesota the election isn’t over. The Coleman/Franken recount has brought out the good, the bad, and the ugly in constituents on both sides. OK, maybe just the bad and the ugly. And it’s putting the lie to Minnesota Nice.

I should admit up front I never really believed in Minnesota Nice. I’ve always thought it was a provincial fable, a way to put a positive spin on passive aggressiveness – and a free pass when it comes to avoiding direct discussion of tough topics. I’ve also thought that ‘nice’ is overrated. How about we try for generous and compassionate? Or courteous, intelligent, and welcoming? Nice? I’ve always felt confident Minnesotans at their best are a lot more than just nice. But these days even humble ‘nice’ is in short supply.

The reader posts I’ve read on local news sites are awe-inspiring in their pure negativity and, too often, completely baseless allegations. How can so many know so little about something so widely reported? Where do these people find the time to spew so much venom? What fuels their paranoia? How do they muster such righteous aversion to simple facts? It’s as if they inhabit some strange, parallel universe where they’ve yet to discover the virtues of trust, patience, and common sense, not to mention nice. Here’s an actual Nov. 18th reader comment posted to a StarTribune website article on the recount:

"Al Franken is a whining, loud-mouthed, woman-demeaning, rape-promoting, porn-spewing, abortion-embracing, sick excuse of a comedian. It is time for him to pack up his bags and get out of Minnesota. For good. For the good of the State and the good of the country. His very presence in Minnesota creates an odor worse than the largest swine farm. It is time for a change... of Al Franken's diapers. Go home, Al, to Hollywood or to a large east coast city where your kind are embraced. You are a loser, even if you happen to have your big buck allies insert enough illegal votes to eke out a "win" over Coleman."

Swine farm? Diapers? Illegal votes? And what exactly does s/he mean by, “your kind?? I’ve used an anti-Franken post to illustrate my point, but I’ve seen plenty of Coleman trashing, too.

As the recount rolls on, Minnesota Nice is for chumps. The partisan posters are hell bent on winning the world championship in mudslinging and a Guinness World Record for baseless vitriol. They’ve created a whole new meaning for the term “gutter ball.?

Yes, here in Minnesota the election isn’t over. On Day Two of the Coleman/Franken recount things are already getting ugly and, well, pretty weird. And as the journalist Hunter S. Thompson once famously observed, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.?

November 13, 2008

Stories of Loss and Heroism Around Art in Iraq

Casualties of war go far beyond the taking of lives. At the Weisman on November 12, former Iraqi National Museum director Dr. Donny George Youkhanna shared the specifics of what his country lost to looting—and stories about what has since been returned—when the United States invaded Baghdad in spring 2003.

He was there, in the crossfire, when helicopters filled the sky and battles broke out in the streets outside the museum. After everyone else fled, Youkhanna and three other non-security staff members chose to stand guard to protect the antiquities inside — and to preserve Iraq’s past. The museum’s collection includes some of the oldest native objects in the world, pieces that have been in the country for over a half-million years.

Youkhanna and his small crew were forced to leave the area and retreated to relatives’ homes. Within days he learned through news reports that the museum had been looted, and since then has counted over 15,000 statues, jewels, masks, and other materials that were taken. Add to that what has been taken from excavation sites over the years, and in total Iraq has lost tens of thousands — or more —pieces of history.

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Today the museum has remains closed behind doors sealed with concrete, protected by raised iron fences with tops adorned with rotating knife blades. It’s an art hospital, where extraordinary efforts are taking place to conserve and restore what was lost to damage and theft.

Cori Wegener, called to Iraq as an Army Reservist and now associate curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, participated in a panel discussion after Youkhanna’s talk. Her team strived to identify and catalogue what was missing or damaged and helped organize recovery efforts for lost goods. She continues to help from the Twin Cities as president of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, which was formed in 2006 to protect cultural property worldwide during armed conflict.

Global recovery efforts have brought over 4,000 antiquities back to the museum. Youkhanna shared one story of recovery where two men approached him and admitted that they were in the museum as it was being looted. Shortly after he received word that some recovered articles were being delivered to the museum. Returning five articles were the the same two gentlemen he talked to just before. The men had taken the items to protect what was not rightfully theirs, but owned by their country for all to treasure.

November 5, 2008

Art Mob in Primary Colors

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The orange and yellow leaves framed against a bright blue sky had good company on October 25 as Art Mob members arrived at the Charles Biederman-designed home of Chuck and Carol Thiss in Greenwood, Minnesota. Decked in primary colors, the home was the setting for the latest Weisman event for members of the Art Mob, a membership category that offers bi-monthly behind the scenes access to art and artists in our community.

One member, smiling ear to ear, described the experience as “being miniaturized, shrunken? enough to literally walk through one of Biederman’s signature wall sculptures of red, blue and yellow planes he created over the course of 40 years at his isolated farm in Red Wing, Minnesota.

The informal Saturday morning gathering featured a tour of the home and a discussion of the work of the artist led by museum director Lyndel King, who came to know the artist over the course of a couple of decades before he died in 2004.

The 2,000-square-foot house is organized around one large red-floored great room at the center and small bedrooms, a gallery kitchen, and bathrooms anchoring each corner. Every surface is a plane of blue, red, or yellow.

Standing in the great room, participants asked what it was like to live in such a colorful construction with two young children. Chuck Thiss, an architect , happily described it as “a small house with small bedrooms, but there’s this big open space where our kids can run. It makes us smile.?

Judging from the crowd gathered on the room’s bright red sofas, he’s right.

November 4, 2008

Plumbing the Possibilities

Today I’m pondering the historic nature of the 2008 election. If recent polling is any indication Senator Barack Obama is about to become the first African-American president-elect of the United States.

As the campaigning comes to an ugly end, Senator Obama is being called un-American. His patriotism and love of country are being called into question by many who oppose his election, including none other than Joe the Plumber. I mean really. Are there people out there who find JTP a credible resource for their voting information? And since when did we time travel back to the 1950’s with all this talk about who is and who’s not un-American? It’s interesting to note that just as the country is poised to take a giant leap forward there are those who’d like to send it stumbling back to some pretty dark days.

So, to shake the dirt off on the morning of this groundbreaking election, I’d like to consider a couple of my favorite American upstarts, starting with Mark Twain.

How many of us were taught about Mark Twain’s anti-war activism? He spoke out when the U.S. went to war with Spain in 1898 and also against the Philippine-American War. Twain became one of the leading protesters against the war, and soon his patriotism was called into question. Sound familiar? But Twain had strong ideas about the true meaning of patriotism, writing in his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, “You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over and care for and be loyal to…? Twain felt no need to support Roosevelt and his wars; it was the United States and its people he felt loyal to.

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The late Senator Paul Wellstone with my daughter, Jen, on the right.

Another who would certainly be subject to scathing scrutiny in this current McCarthy-fueled flashback is our own homegrown, odds-buster, Paul Wellstone. I think about Wellstone and his original long-shot candidacy a lot these days. How his victory made change seem possible. Last night I got out my copy of Wellstone’s book, Conscience of a Liberal, and started skimming through it, re-visiting the parts I’d underlined when I read it just after the Paul’s death. I came upon a story he recalled about meeting a student from the University of Michigan who told him, “Senator, I want to be able to dream again – about a better country and a better world. And politics today doesn’t give me a chance to dream.?

The candidacy of Barack Obama has changed American forever, and for the better. We’ve glimpsed the future – and wherever that former student is, I’ll be s/he is dreaming now.

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