Minnesota seems the last place anyone would go to for a glimpse of ancient China, but thanks to the late Robert Jacobsen, people come from all over the world to see 5,000 years of Chinese furniture, porcelain, jade and architecture at the Mia, formerly known as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
A giant in the Asian art world and a champion of the Twin Cities art community, Jacobsen died Nov. 24, 2021, from complications of Alzheimer's disease. He was 77.
As reported in a Star Tribune article by Mary Abbe when Jacobsen “retired” in 2010, he developed an excellent collection of Asian art and oversaw Mia’s expansion during his 33-year career there. As the museum’s curator of Asian art, Jacobsen expanded a 900-piece hoard of ancient bronzes and Japanese prints into a stellar collection of 14,500 objects, including a 400-year-old Ming-Dynasty reception hall and a Qing Dynasty scholar's study from 1797.
Jacobson's idea of showcasing objects in authentic rooms is what most distinguishes the institute's collection. Museums in San Francisco, Kansas City, New York and elsewhere also have fine Chinese collections, but nowhere else are items shown in the very spaces where they were used, admired and displayed centuries ago.
"Representing the art of China in a museum is an enormous challenge," said James Lally, the premier New York dealer in Chinese art. With the historic rooms, Jacobsen "was able to create a context ... which really transformed everyone's understanding of Chinese life in a way that no other museum in America or Europe has ever achieved."
Curators don't just go out and buy art, of course. They need expertise based on years of study; in Jacobsen's case, at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan and the University of Minnesota, where he earned a doctorate in Asian Art History.
His boldest move came in 1987-88, when he curated a major exhibition of contemporary Chinese artist Wucius Wong at Mia, a significant step for an American museum. At that time, for “a major U.S. museum to feature a mid-career, living contemporary Chinese artist’s work ‘when the ink is still drying’” was not the norm.
"Not too many people realize Bob's foresight in doing so," said Pat Hui, director of the now-closed Hui Arts gallery in Minneapolis, which showcased artists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China.
After U.S.-China relations were normalized in the mid-1980s, interest in Asian art skyrocketed. He began working with Bruce and Ruth Dayton to expand the collection, especially in Chinese art.
"Bob was a mentor and trusted guide to my grandfather for decades as they worked together to build Mia's collection of Chinese art into one of the finest in America," said Eric Dayton. "The museum's extraordinary Asian galleries are a legacy of their friendship and serve as a lasting testament to Bob's scholarship and expertise."
According to Linda Mealey-Lohmann, co-founder of the MN China Friendship Garden Society and board member. “Jacobsen, in addition to his role in creating a world class Asian Art collection at the Mia and writing many, many scholarly books, he was connected with US-China Peoples Friendship Association-MN Chapter, taking his first trip to China with USCPFA-MN in the early years, and became an Honorary Advisory Council member in 2005 when the MN China Friendship Garden Society was founded (and was an advisor to now) according to Linda Mealey-Lohmann, MCFGS-MN board Member.
Jacobsen, who grew up in Roseville, met his future wife, Patricia, in the late 1970s. They were married in a Buddhist-style ceremony. She recalls his travels to China, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and the Silk Road through Afghanistan and Pakistan, some of which she accompanied him on. Patricia also wanted to clarify that Robert actually resigned from the Mia back in 2010 to concentrate on his interest in traveling, research and writing on Chinese art and culture. In 2012, Jacobsen worked with David Dewey on the book “Celestial Horses & Long Sleeve Dancers.”
The local Chinese and art communities have lost a great friend and supporter.
Jacobsen posed with Wucius Wong during his art exhibit at Mia
Jacobsen with Pat Hui