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Minnesota Museum of American Art -- now known as 'the M' -- spreads out in its new space

The Henrietta Schmoll Rauenhorst Court

The Henrietta Schmoll Rauenhorst Court Jay Gabler

"Have you tried this?" Kristin Makholm asked a colleague as she unclipped a CB-style microphone from behind the new reception desk at the Minnesota Museum of American Art this past Tuesday morning.

Opening Day at the New M

Minnesota Museum Of American Art
Free; $300 for First Night party

Clicking the mic on, Makholm used the venue's PA to welcome a group of journalists, inviting them to gather for a presentation. "Over and out," said the museum's executive director as she put the mic down.

Everything is new at "the M," as it's now being branded. Everything, that is, except for the institution's unique collection and the 19th-century buildings the museum now occupies.

Minneapolis firm VJAA designed the museum's new gallery, education, and reception spaces in downtown St. Paul's Pioneer-Endicott buildings. The new footprint encompasses the "project space" that the museum has been using for programming in recent years; it now functions as the Josephine Adele Ford Center for Creativity, an engagement area that will house classes, activities, and artist residencies.

There's more to come — a phase two will be unveiled in 2020 — but the spaces opening this Sunday mark a great leap forward for what Makholm noted is "St. Paul's only art museum." The institution has a storied history, founded in 1894 as the St. Paul School of Fine Arts. Among its most notable students: Paul Manship, the sculptor who went on to create the iconic Prometheus sculpture for Rockefeller Center.

The school became a museum in 1927, but by the turn of the following century, it was starting to look like curtains for the organization. When it lost a riverfront space in 2009, media ominously reported on laid-off staff and a collection loaded into indefinite storage.

Paul Manship's 'Actaeon,' on display as part of "100 Years and Counting."

Paul Manship's 'Actaeon,' on display as part of "100 Years and Counting." Jay Gabler

Thanks to Makholm's resourcefulness, donors who shared her vision, and politicians who understood that a revitalized Capital City will need more than just "new bar concepts," the museum made its way to Pioneer-Endicott. After functioning since 2012 as a gallery with rotating shows, the M is finally a true museum again.

In the new design, Pioneer-Endicott is as much on display as the objects in the galleries. A two-story court connects a glass-walled "sky bridge" (even the skyway’s been rebranded) with the lobby and, beyond, the sidewalk.

A brick wall from the '70s was knocked out in favor of a return to the street-level windows that original architect Cass Gilbert envisioned, and an aperture in the court's ceiling lets visitors look up to the sky through a space between the buildings, a view that's been blocked for a half-century.

That court is currently occupied by Sheila Pepe's web-like installation Softly...Before the Supreme Court. The title refers to the fact that Gilbert, who co-designed the Endicott building, also designed the U.S. Supreme Court building. A maze of ropes and woven swatches, Before the Supreme Court pulls the eye upward for a soft landing.

A long new gallery occupies what was once an alleyway. Here, the museum is showing off dozens of pieces from its permanent collection in a show that's aptly called “100 Years and Counting.” With works ranging from an Alec Soth photograph of an oil worker to a George Morrison landscape collage, the show celebrates the fact that such a significant collection has been kept, miraculously, intact. Manship's 1939 Group of Bears, originally created for New York's Central Park, is at once imposing and...well, kind of cute.

The crazy quilt of flooring styles that you walk over as you pass from the exhibit space into the education space is testament to the buildings' long and varied past. (Visitors who know their St. Paul history will recognize a conference room that once functioned as a post office.) Future decades will doubtless entail more permutations, but for now, Makholm and her museum are firmly planted.

"We've had permanent homes in the past," she acknowledged on Tuesday. "This is our last permanent home."