Alumni Profile • Carol Veldman Rudie '68
Docent opens windows

Carol Veldman RudieBecause real estate in her historic south Minneapolis neighborhood has grown so precious, Carol Veldman Rudie ’68 feared that a wrecking ball would demolish the Spanish Colonial Revival Church on Stevens Avenue when its congregation moved out. Instead, in mid-2004 restoration crews went to work behind a sign that read: “Future Home of The Museum of Russian Art.”

When it opened in May 2005, Rudie was one of the museum’s early visitors. “We walked into this beautifully restored interior,” she remembered, “and within half an hour I said, ‘I’m going to volunteer here.’”

She knew nothing about Russian art. “What came first was the appeal of their stewardship of this wonderful old building,” she said.

In less than a month she was one of four docents leading tours of the museum’s opening exhibit. No one trained her for the job. Inundated with visitors to the new space, the small museum had no time or plan for docent recruitment and education—until Rudie arrived.

“I had a vision for it, so I was made the director of docent education,” she laughed. She’s developed a five-week training program for the now 13 docents. “It emphasizes Russian art history, which 99 percent of the population knows nothing about.”

That’s especially true of 20th century Russian art, in which the museum specializes. After the revolution of 1917, artists in the former Soviet Union were trained and sponsored by the state and isolated from outside influences. Their work was largely unseen in the West until the Soviet bloc dissolved. The Museum of Russian Art is the only museum in North America dedicated solely to Russian art from the late 19th century through the present.

“People look at the paintings and are amazed,” Rudie said. “They say, ‘We thought everything was going to be gray.’ They expect pictures of Lenin and Stalin and the military, and instead they see a plethora of colors and subjects they identify with from their own lives.”

When training docents or leading public tours, Rudie gives a history lesson in the last 150 years of Russian art. “People say, ‘Now I understand what I’m looking at.’ And when they understand, they appreciate.”

That appreciation is one of the chief aims of the museum, Rudie said. “We want to close the gap created by the Cold War, to open a window that shows people the artistic creativity that was going on in a place that was closed to us for so long.”

The opened window looks both ways. Another of the museum’s aims is to give Russians a fresh look at Americans. The museum collaborates with Russian museums to mount exhibits and sponsors exchanges between Russian and American scholars and artists.

For Rudie, opening the cross-cultural window is not only an opportunity to build appreciation for Russian art; it also allows her to raise questions that unsettle some visitors.

“People sometimes ask me, ‘Wasn’t the government dictating what artists made?’ That lets me talk about how communities support their artists. I raise questions about the capitalist model of the relationship between the artist and the larger community and its goals. Is our myth of the independent artist, who does nothing for ‘filthy commercialism,’ any healthier than the Soviet concept of the artist in service of a societal goal?”

Whether she’s discussing nettlesome questions with visitors or opening windows for them onto unexpected beauty, Rudie sees her role at the museum as that of “a kind of ambassador across cultures,” one who’s “having an awful lot of fun.”