If you have ever been to the Midwest Museum of American Art in downtown Elkhart, you’ve most certainly run into Brian Byrn. Brian’s charismatic personality combined with his depth of knowledge about art and iconic handlebar mustache makes the experience at the MMAA top-notch.
Brian was hired in 1981 to be the Curator of Exhibitions & Education but the story of the Midwest Museum of American Art began years prior to that in 1978 when the late Dr. Richard Burns and wife, Jane Burns, to create a non-profit museum in downtown Elkhart; a city (in 1978) with a population of36,000.
The Burns had moved to Elkhart in 1968 with their family of three children and soon added a fourth. As the children grew and attended public schools, it was noticed that the Elkhart Community Schools stopped offering art classes sometime around 1974. When Dr. Burns noticed that the St. Joseph Valley Bank was for sale, he inquired with the realtor about it. Since the Burns had started to collect American Art, in particular the work of American illustrators like Norman Rockwell, American Art became the focus of the institution's mission. Little regard was given to the subject by scholars of the day and there was little or no art history programs offered by universities in the subject. Further, American Art was reasonably priced in the auction houses of New York and Chicago and accessible to young collectors. The next steps were clear - apply for a not-for-profit, 501 (c) (3), public status with the IRS, then come up with a name.
It was made evident to Dr. Burns that the name needed to attract attention from across the nation not just from Elkhart's population. He enlisted support via his community network of friends and other colleagues in the collectors' world of art and artists. The name he decided upon was met with immediate acclaim and MMAA entered the record book as one of only a few institutions using 'American Art' as part of its identity. Today there are about twenty 'museums of American Art' in the entire country by name; the oldest of which is the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.
We sat down with Brian and asked him a series of questions, including what it’s been like going from the 214 pieces when he arrived at the museum, to the now significant number of over 7,500 pieces in the stunning collection.
What's your favorite part of the museum?
There are two things I love about MMAA - the collection that has been built from 0 works to now over 7,500; and the people who have supported our efforts through memberships and donations. People really make a place like MMAA come alive! Every week an average of 50 people attend the gallery talks and films. These folks reserve time (every week) in their busy schedules to come to the museum and learn. That experience is comparable to taking a course in American Art but without any prerequisites. In other words, you don't have to be a scholar to enjoy meeting and listening to artists and staff talk about the exhibits or the art on display. Museum members and donors can enjoy lifelong learning at MMAA and it makes my job very satisfying as Curator and Director.
The permanent collection that is referred to as The Story of American Art encompasses nearly 200 years from the early 19th century to now the 21st century. The objects on display (around 1,200 at any given time) and all in storage (around 6,000+) have been donated from over 500 sources from across the United States. From this deep well I can create (or curate) experiences and tell thematic stories reflected throughout the galleries.
Brian, you’re originally from Corydon, Indiana and we’re so glad you call Elkhart home. What’s it like working in Elkhart?
Having decided to make Elkhart my home 40 years ago, I find the contrast between small city living and the rural countryside very appealing. Also, living close to Chicago without paying high prices for everything is very important. The proximity and convenience of being there in less than two hours is great for me to recharge my cultural batteries. I do believe that Elkhart County affords those residents who want to participate a huge cultural menu, too. The number of attractions and events held annually are more than I can possibly attend so variety is an important ingredient that makes living in Elkhart County special.
Where is your favorite spot to grab a bite to eat in Elkhart County?
There are several places I recommend to visitors and residents when it comes to eating. Some of my favorites are (not in rank order): The Vine, 523 Tap & Grill, Five Star Dive Bar all within a quick walk of the MMAA. I also enjoy West on Warren Gallery + Grill in Middlebury, Cubiletes Mexican Bar & Grill, and Michael's in Elkhart. My wife Lisa and I try to eat at two of these restaurants every month. But I have to say, my all-time favorite spot to relax and/or eat though is at home! Lisa is a gourmet cook and we love being in our home with our little mini-Doodle, Maisie :)
Museums are both energizing and relaxing. Where does a museum curator like yourself go to relax in Elkhart County?
When it comes to relaxing I feel that the City of Elkhart parks and the Elkhart County Parks have extraordinary experiences to offer. We are blessed with ample natural resources that can help people unwind and relax.
We know that the Midwest Museum of American Art is a must-stop when in Elkhart County. What else would you say is a must-see or a must-do for visitors?
I would suggest looking over the Elkhart County Museum Association website and visit the ECCVB for suggestions and maps too. Some of my personal favorites are the Hall of Heroes Superhero Museum and Wellfield Botanic Gardens and as I mentioned before any of our outstanding City of City of Elkhart or Elkhart County Parks as well as the Riverwalk in downtown Elkhart to unwind.
What would you tell someone looking to relocate their family to Elkhart County?
To borrow an old radio slogan from years ago, "Elkhart is Someplace Special". With its location in North Central Indiana, Elkhart County is a beautiful blend of cultural activity, affordable living, good schools, and inspiring people!
Contact Curator of Exhibitions & Education, Midwest Museum of American Art
p: (574) 293-6660
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