BACKGROUNDER: Fine Art at the Minnesota Historical Society

For immediate release

Release dated: 
February 10, 2022
Media contacts: 

Suzanne Herrick, 612-247-3079,
Julianna Olsen, 651-259-3140,

BACKGROUNDER: Fine Art at the Minnesota Historical Society

The Minnesota Historical Society’s fine art collection is the most comprehensive collection of Minnesota art in the world. It includes more than 7,000 works including painting, photography, sculpture and more. 

The art collection at MNHS differs from that of an art museum. The MNHS art collection is a reflection of Minnesota and its people – a documentation and interpretation of history as seen through the eyes of the artists. 

While the collection contains works of art by widely recognized artists, it also includes works by lesser-known artists that share a story unique to Minnesota. The artists are our neighbors, our relatives, and our teachers. Art subjects are often people, places and events very familiar to the people of Minnesota. The art resonates with a shared experience, making the content easier to access and consider.

Early Collection and Through the Years

  • MNHS began collecting art soon after its founding in 1849. Some of its works date back to the 1830s. 
  • Early art in the collection mostly consists of paintings of portraits and landscapes that document Minnesota and its people. The art also tells artists’ stories—of their values, aspirations and their worlds. 
  • Today, the collection includes works from every decade, 1830s to the present. 
  • Some decades, such as from 1910-1920 have fewer items in the collection due to the historic events of World War I. Other decades, such as during the time of the WPA from the late 1930s and into the 1940s, feature an abundance of art in the American Regionalist style.
  • With the advent of photography, which often replaced the role of painted portraits and landscapes to document people and places, art became more abstract and personal. 
  • Since its first accession, the MNHS fine art collection has grown to include sculpture, photography, contemporary abstractions and more.

Art Collecting at MNHS

  • The MNHS collection has evolved to trace the particularly robust spirit of art making in Minnesota—a story that distinguishes this collection from other states’ historical organizations.
  • MNHS collects art methodically and consistently that reflects Minnesota. While most works are donations, MNHS curators actively collect works to complement a core collection. Today, the majority of  works purchased use endowed funds.
  • The works are used in four primary ways: to illustrate a theme or idea in an exhibit; an exhibit unto itself such as those at the James J. Hill House; used as research; or, as loans to other arts, history and culture organizations.