MINNEAPOLIS — On a recent tour of the Minneapolis Institute of Art — a whirlwind that included three “let me show you just one more” stops — Kaywin Feldman twice picked up candy wrappers from the gleaming stone floors and once stopped to welcome a group of schoolchildren. (“What did you like best?” the museum director asked them, and then laughed in delight at their “the ancient stuff” reply.)

No visitor or task seems too small for Feldman, 52, who has turned the museum into a central player in the cultural life of this Midwestern city, as well as a national model for technological innovation. With an eye to detail, she has rejuvenated the regional museum with administrative skill, data-driven marketing and a focus on the life-changing potential of art.

“I believe in the classic American values of truth and beauty, and I believe profoundly in the power of art,” Feldman says. “It’s the root of what I care about, the root of what we do.”

In March, Feldman and her husband, architect and retired professor Jim Lutz, will move to Washington, where she will become the fifth — and first female — director of the National Gallery of Art, succeeding Earl “Rusty” Powell III. The federally subsidized museum is larger and more conservative than Mia — the nickname of the 103-year-old Minneapolis institution — but it is ripe for a transformation of its own. The National Gallery is recognized for its scholarship and high-quality exhibitions, but it has many pressing problems, including low employee morale, lack of storage space and an outdated digital strategy.

Feldman, colleagues and peers say, is up to the challenge.

“She is somebody who understands all the different aspects of museum stewardship — passion for the collection, scholarship, exhibitions, the role of the institution within the city,” says Marina Pacini, chief curator at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, where Feldman was director for eight years before moving to Minneapolis in 2008. “She is supportive of the staff. She is really someone who hits on all cylinders.”

Feldman interviewed for the Minneapolis position in 2005, when she was 39, but didn’t get the job. “Silly us, we thought she was too young,” says Mia board chairwoman Nivin MacMillan. “We lost our nerve.”

But, two years later, Feldman tried again and succeeded, taking over from William M. Griswold. She made an immediate impact, MacMillan says.

“She has an unbelievable ability to persuade people, but not in a hawker, circus kind of way. It’s uncanny,” she says.

In her first year, Feldman reorganized the staff, jump-started a moribund exhibition program and created a contemporary art department. In subsequent years, she guided the museum through the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 (including two rounds of budget and staff cuts), introduced digital content to draw connections between the museum’s diverse collections, and collaborated with such powerhouses as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London. Her efforts dramatically increased attendance, which surpassed 890,000 in 2017, compared with 426,000 in 2007.

“The most important thing is to have an impact on people,” Feldman says, sitting at a utilitarian conference table in her no-frills office looking out onto the museum’s student-filled plaza. “The use of technology, what we accession, our publications — it’s not about the outputs, it’s about the impact on people, and that starts with the art.”

'A national conversation'

Feldman has cemented the museum’s place in the city by organizing shows and programs that reflect its communities. In 2017, it had its first exhibition of contemporary Somali art (Minneapolis has the largest Somali population of any U.S. city), and last year featured works created in response to the police shooting death of Philando Castile, an African American resident of St. Paul. And in June, “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists” will open, marking the first major national exhibition of Native female artists.

These shows, as well as her advocacy for diversity and inclusion in both hiring and acquisitions, have opened Feldman up to criticism that she is more focused on politics than on art. Writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, art critic and New Criterion editor Roger Kimball called Feldman an enemy of art and warned that her hiring was “the latest stop on an express train whose destination is the subordination of art to politics.”

“The list of issues [Feldman] believes an art museum must tackle reads like a far-left manifesto,” he wrote.

Feldman, however, says she thinks museums have the capacity — and the responsibility — to both celebrate the beauty of an artwork and offer a platform to discuss the issues it raises.

“There’s a way to do so with such a light touch, absolutely acknowledging but not beating people over their heads,” she says. “There are some works you can look at and just revel in their beauty . . . and some that you spend a little more time with, and some that are really profound, and they might be upsetting or more interesting in some way, and you chew and digest those.

“It’s fine for visitors to get whatever they want out of it, but it is our job to offer them lots of tools.”

Feldman commissioned renowned theater director Robert Wilson to design “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty,” an installation of works from the museum’s Chinese collection that ran for four months last year. It began with a five-minute meditation in a darkened gallery and replaced wall text with sensory effects.

“It made us all nervous,” Feldman says of the installation. “We wanted to test if the approach would inspire curiosity. People don’t necessarily want to be educated, but everyone wants to learn.”

Reaction was mixed. Julie Risser, an art history professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design next to the museum, says the museum’s focus on the audience went too far.

“It treated objects as props,” she says. “It was so self-indulgent, another case of a white man benefiting from showing non-Western art to build his career.”

But Mia board member Maurice Blanks says Feldman seeks dialogue, not drama. “She is committed to having a conversation,” Blanks says. “I don’t think she has an agenda about what the answer is.”

Feldman is quick to acknowledge that choices made at a regional museum might not be right for a national institution.

“Our work here is very much about the community,” she says. “But what does it mean to be the National Gallery, in terms of access, and online? I need to get there and know the people and understand [them] before I figure out what’s the right thing.”

Colleagues say that Feldman is sure to have some ideas already.

“It’s got to be a question she’s been thinking about,” says Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “How does the notion of a museum and collection meet the idea of a set of national values, and at a moment when ideas of nationhood and identity are themselves being redefined and renegotiated? The National Gallery has a platform, a foundation. It is by definition a leader, and it has the potential to create a national conversation.”

At the National Gallery, the tasks of acquiring art, presenting exhibitions and soliciting private donations will be similar to Feldman’s previous directorships, first at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science and then in Memphis and Minneapolis. But leading the 77-year-old national museum also will require building relationships with Congress, which provides three-quarters of the museum’s $190 million operating budget, and nurturing ties with Washington’s embassies and art leaders around the globe.

A life-changing experience

Feldman stumbled into the museum world at the University of Michigan, where she was a political science major. A Greek archaeology course changed everything.

“It stole my heart,” she says. “I think it’s the combination of it being science and also art, the fact that we have to construct really good arguments to explain the past when we’re absent so much specific information.”

After graduating with her archaeology degree, Feldman backpacked through the Middle East and Europe, where she had another change of heart. An Italian railroad strike left her stranded on a train without food for three days. The train finally deposited a smelly and famished Feldman in the Italian city of Padua — just as its famous Arena Chapel was about to close.

“I had to decide — food and a shower or the chapel. Food and a shower, chapel,” she says, her hands mimicking a scale, with one going up and the other down. “I went to the chapel, and it literally changed my life. Being there in front of Giotto’s frescoes brought out this incredible emotion in me. It made me feel so positive about humanity and optimistic about the world, and the fact that humans could create something so beautiful and so powerful and moving.”

That moment still fuels her crusade to make art and museums a part of everyday life. A proponent of free admission — “it’s the only way to make museum visiting a part of regular behavior,” she says — Feldman started a free membership program and hosted events on racial stereotypes and issues of equity. She started the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts, a collaboration among artists, researchers and social scientists to explore and measure how art promotes emotional intelligence.

Feldman champions technology, too, in the galleries and behind the scenes. Flat-screen monitors at the Minneapolis museum help visitors understand the connections between the museum’s eight collections, while guards carry iPads with information beyond what the wall text provides. There are also lots of chairs in the galleries (and they’re quite comfortable) because Feldman believes good seating encourages people to slow down and spend more time with the art

A data analyst Feldman hired sorts through information collected from visitors and guards (who record their interactions in the gallery); focus groups are brought in to test exhibition titles; and sophisticated computer programs help the marketing department.

Kristin Prestegaard, Mia’s chief engagement officer, says Feldman’s support helped convince the curators and other employees of the value of the data.

“She created an environment of collegiality. You’re an expert on your subject, let me be an expert in my field,” Prestegaard says.

Feldman’s love for her job was obvious on a recent December day. After conducting a tour of the galleries, she spent more than three hours in her office talking to curators about future acquisitions. Her enthusiasm for what she described as the “most fun part of the job” never waned.

“They’re like birds in a nest, all looking for food,” she says of the curators and their pitches.

Feldman’s people skills were forged by an itinerant youth. Her late engineer father was in the U.S. Coast Guard, and the family moved frequently. Always being a newcomer made her appreciate the importance of extending a welcome to others, she says.

“She’s a lot of fun, and people respond to that,” says Larry Wheeler, the recently retired director of the North Carolina Museum of Art and a close friend. “She has ample credentials and scholarship, but that’s not her persona. She can talk that stuff with the best of them, but she’s interested in the people we engage and how to make those [engagements] as rich as we can.”

Feldman and her husband — they met in Fresno, when he volunteered at the museum — are looking for a home in Washington that will fit their two cats and their 10,000 books, which they shelve in his-and-her libraries. Her 11 years in Minneapolis are the longest she’s stayed in one place her entire life, and she’s excited about returning to the Washington area (she attended Montgomery Blair High School as a sophomore) and exploring its restaurants and museums.

Feldman is tight-lipped about any changes she might make at the National Gallery, saying she’ll spend a lot of time listening and learning.

“I think it’s going to take me a year to understand who the people are, the culture,” she says. “I’m a learner, so I want to dig in and really explore.”