Mia to finally bring attention to ‘long-languished’ South and Southeast Asian art collections

With a focus on community engagement and expansion, curator Pujan Gandhi is excited to get to work.

Becca Most

It’s about time the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s South and Southeast Asian art collections had a makeover. 

For the past 20 years, the South and Southeast Asian galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Art have seen little to no change, despite numerous expansions in the Japanese, Korean and Chinese galleries down the hall.

Pujan Gandhi hopes to change this.

Gandhi was hired in the fall as the Mia’s new assistant curator of its South, Southeast Asian and Islamic collections.

Self-motivated and familiar with the collector’s market, Gandhi said one of his goals is not only to expand the collection he manages, but to invite visitors to engage with art in a new and personal way.

“Because this is a free museum, you’re seeing some of the best and most interesting work man has created in one space,” Gandhi said. “Right now, we are in discussion about reorganizing the galleries. We’re trying to get as many voices as possible to sort of design and engineer [the gallery] to be accommodating to a lot of voices.”

In a lecture hosted last Thursday, Gandhi noted that the region of South, Southeast Asia and the Middle East is populated by over two billion people — one fourth of the global population. 

“I think this area’s relevancy makes a case for itself,” he said. “Starting from 1917, we’ve been collecting in the field and making very ambitious and important acquisitions. But it’s been sporadic and undirected and so this is an opportunity to think about things holistically and see where there’s gaps in the canon.”

Matthew Welch, the chief curator and deputy director at Mia, said he’s working with Gandhi to develop other ways to engage viewers, including rewriting the educational panels next to gallery artwork, uploading digital maps and diagrams to iPads next to the exhibits and hosting more interactive programs or lectures.

“Some people love straight lectures and thrive that way, but other people learn differently,” Welch said. “We’re trying to encourage the curators, when they shape their programs to their affinity groups or to the public at large, to think more expansively.” 

Liu Yang, Mia’s head of Chinese, South and Southeast Asian art, said the leadership team is working hard to help Gandhi strategize new and interesting exhibitions and engage with the community.

“There are people from all different cultures, so we need to have those people in our mind,” Yang said. “Museums really serve a society of diversity. Learning lies in the center of this collection.”

Encyclopedic in nature, the museum links thousands of artifacts, paintings, sculptures and texts under one roof. According to Gandhi, one of Mia’s strengths is its diverse collection.

“I think we talk a lot about art as a vehicle for empathy,” he said. “So when we come to understand the art of different people and different cultures — and even minds of our own culture — we sort of gain a deeper understanding of the human condition.”