Birth of a Legend: The story behind the Tweed Museum

January 26, 2016

Taylor Martin-Romme
Zenith News

The neighborhood kids all thought the big, old house was haunted. Unoccupied during the mid-’70s, the imposing neo-Renaissance mansion, with its arched doorways, limestone balustrade, and severe façade, invited the imagination.


Hiding in its backyard pines, the neighborhood children made up stories about the mansion’s ghostly inhabitants, daring each other until one of their intrepid number would dash up to the windows for a peek inside.


While unlikely to be harboring any ghosts, 2531 East Seventh Street in Duluth has a storied history. It was designed by Frederick Perkins, a prominent Chicago architect in the French and Italian Revivals.


The home was built in 1914 for Marcus Lafayette Fay, a mining tycoon known as “Captain Fay,” even though he was never the captain of anything. A self-described “hustler,” Fay helped rebuild the city of Virginia after the Fire of 1900, upon which Virginia elected him mayor. In 1907, he retired to Duluth, ran unsuccessfully for mayor here, and died shortly after moving into his most famous building south of the Iron Range.


Fay’s life is an interesting story of its own—a staunch Democrat and teetotaler, he turned heads in Washington for attempting to close saloons on the Range—but his Duluth home was destined for an even more famous resident.


In 1888, Evan and Anna Tuv moved their brood of 11 children from Goodhue County in southern Minnesota, to Duluth. The Tuvs were “sloopers,” Norwegian Quakers who fled religious persecution to the US and Canada.


In the 1800s, only rich Norwegians had their own surnames. The peasants used a patronymic system in which children took the father’s first name, followed by “-sen” for a boy or “-datter” for a girl. So, if Henrik is the son of Knut, his name would be Henrik Knutsen; if Anna is the daughter of Lars, her name would be Anna Larsdatter.


As the sloopers settled in southern Ontario and the northern Midwest, many of them either anglicized their patronymic names—resulting in Minnesota’s proliferation of Olsons, Larsons, Nelsons, and Johnsons—or they took the opportunity to do like the rich folk and adopted a surname of their own, often based on the name of a family farm or a beloved hometown in the Old Country. My own family name, Romme, comes from the town of Romedal (now called Stange), just south of Lillehammer.


The Tuv family’s name may refer to the village of Tuv in southern Norway, except that Norwegian immigrants commonly changed their names a couple of times before settling on one—and that’s exactly what the Tuvs did.


Their eldest son, George Peter, was 17 when they moved to Duluth and changed their name to the English word for a durable woven fabric—so useful for peasants and yet so far beyond the means of most immigrants, suggesting the Tuvs may have harbored big dreams: Tweed.


George Peter Tweed graduated from Duluth High School in 1889 and started out as a reporter for the short-lived Duluth Daily News and then for the Duluth Evening Herald, but moved on to the more profitable ventures of real estate and banking. In 1908, he married Alice Lyons of Faribault, and the couple adopted a little girl, Bernice.


By 1920, George was a self-made millionaire. He partnered with steel magnate Albert Coates to mine the Mesabi, Cuyuna, and Gogebic iron ranges. He was director of First National Bank, and chaired the board of directors when First National merged with American Exchange Bank to become First American National Bank.


In 1921, the Tweeds purchased the Seventh Street house and George began collecting art. This seems to have been more a financial investment than an interest in art for art’s sake. George mail-ordered a large portion of their collection and never traveled to Europe. When the Tweeds opened the first floor of their home to the public, their tastes were described as “unconventional” for the time, even “bought on the cheap.”


While Henry Frick and Paul Mellon were buying Rembrandts and Vermeers for hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Tweeds were spending only $500 to $1,500 on little-known, odd pieces, like The Diggers, a representation of French peasants that only became important later when its artist, Jean-François Millet, was recognized as one of the earliest painters in the Barbizon School, an art movement towards realistic depictions of everyday scenes. Or Flight into Egypt, one of the rare oil-on-copper paintings by Denys Calvaert, a Flemish artist whose Biblical series is now largely on display at the Louvre.


On April 30, 1946, George died suddenly, leaving an estate to Alice worth $3.8 million in 1946 dollars, including by then more than 300 paintings.


In the 1950s, Alice donated the Seventh Street house and the art collection, piece by piece, to the University of Minnesota Duluth. When the Internal Revenue Service launched an investigation into the donations, Alice set fire to all their art purchase documents, leaving the university with very little idea how each piece was traded or purchased, from whom or for how much money.


Indeed, later research confirmed that a number of pieces in the Tweeds’ collection were forgeries. In 1982, art historian J. Gray Sweeney turned up letters between George and Norbert Heermann, a German artist who tried to warn George that some of his pieces were fakes.

 

“Tweed abruptly concluded the correspondence with the following remark: ‘And as for the signature seeming unfamiliar, that is something in its favor rather than against it, because the easiest thing I know of to handle is the signature of a painting...I am not going to take you seriously because I am very, very much pleased with the picture.’”


Gray notes that “a substantial number of signatures in [Tweed’s] collection caused great concern because they seemed to have been repainted to make them more clearly visible.” One of the signatures “readily wiped off.”


On September 20, 1950, the Seventh Street house opened as the Tweed Museum, the only art gallery in the region at the time. The dedication was attended by more than 400, including the Cuban Ambassador and the president of the Chicago and North Western Railroad.


When UMD moved from 2305 East Fifth Street to its current location, the Tweed collection went with it. The on-campus gallery opened on October 15, 1958.


Alice’s only stipulation in donating the collection was that its permanent home remain in Duluth, though exhibits could travel. The first tour launched in 1968, a coast-to-coast exhibit of the museum’s Barbizon School collection. Its first international tour brought the Barbizon works to the Louvre and to the Hayward Gallery in London.


The museum grew fast—a little too fast. By 1984, Director Bill Boyce retired and Steve Klindt replaced him. Boyce had known the Tweeds personally; Klindt had not. (In 1953, Alice remarried a doctor named Edward Tuohy, one of the founders of the Duluth Clinic. They moved to California, where Alice died in 1973.)


Klindt added curators, began a restoration project on some of the oldest pieces, and oversaw the addition of the Sax Sculpture Conservatory. The UMD art department faculty balked that the new director was too focused on the Tweed as a community gallery to the exclusion of student exhibits and learning opportunities. The conflict got so bad mediators were brought in from Minneapolis.


But Klindt signed his own death warrant in 1988, when he proposed selling off 10 percent of the collection for $14 million in order to fund staff positions, storage technology, and restoration—all routine museum concerns that the original endowment had never planned for. The university’s Board of Regents scuttled the sale after consulting with the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Klindt left shortly thereafter for the Queens Museum in New York.


UMD merged the director and curator into a single position and hired Martin DeWitt, a painter and Tweed curator. Although DeWitt’s tenure wasn’t fraught with the same “personality clashes” as the more outspoken Klindt, eventually DeWitt faced the same conundrum: The Tweed served as both a community gallery and a student gallery. The university only wanted to fund the educational mission, yet it needed the community mission to remain competitive in the art world, and that required more money.


DeWitt proposed auctioning off a portion of the Potlatch Collection, a series of commercial paintings depicting the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, acquired from the Northwest Paper Company (later known as Potlatch, hence the name of the series).


DeWitt’s proposal was less radical than Klindt’s. Fewer than 10 percent of the 374-item Potlatch Collection can be displayed at any one time, and DeWitt wanted to use the money for new acquisitions—a less controversial purpose than Klindt’s plan to sell off artwork for operational expenses. But, ultimately, DeWitt’s proposal was just as doomed and he resigned shortly thereafter in 2003.


Current Director/Curator Ken Bloom was hired in 2004 and two years ago accomplished a portion of what Klindt and DeWitt could not, bringing in a $1 million grant for renovations that are underway now. The museum is currently closed until May to update the climate control system and add additional gallery space for multi-media—a revolution in both art history and art display.


“First and foremost, it’s ephemeral,” says Bloom. “It’s not a hard object. Your computer is, but this week’s computer is next week’s doorstopper...The benefit is it’s non-material so you can have a lot of it. On the other hand, since it’s non-material, you can’t preserve it and you’re perpetually having to change the format of it.


“This completely transforms the notion of what a collection is, but there’s far more practical applications to contemporary digital work. The way it applies to us is as traditional as it gets. We have been, for the past eight years, re-cataloguing the entire collection. It’s an enormous task. Our objective is to be able to have someone remotely access our collection. It’s going to take us some time to get there. We have to transform all of our paper files, review and assess and photograph every object.


“It changes our relationship to our audience. It’s no longer a case where you come by and see what there is and that’s it and we’ll tell you what to think about it. That’s what a lot of museums used to do. It’s really now more of a matter of, ‘Well this is what we have up right now. What do you want to see?’


“The relationship between the curator and the community is utterly changed forever because of digital media...Once your community has access to your collection, it enhances our ability to support the school system by creating a curriculum out of object learning, because we hold the community’s treasures in our hands.”

 

Correction: This story has been altered from the original to correct the name of the Tweed's first director.

 

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