The mysterious case of missing art curator Barton Kestle

In Spring 1954, Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) curator of modern art Barton Kestle, whose expertise included Soviet avant-garde printmaking and photography, boarded a train bound for Washington, D.C. to testify in front of Congress about Communist influences in American art. Unfortunately, he never returned to work, and seemed to just disappear.

After some time, the decision was made to board up his office, since nobody had ever heard from him again. His memory faded into obscurity until 2011 when, during museum renovations, workers re-discovered his office, which was still perfectly intact, like a mid-century time capsule. The scene was so well preserved, MIA decided to keep the office as-is and incorporate it into the museum as an exhibit, so that visitors could get a glimpse into what an office from 1954 would have looked like. Atlas Obscura describes the office:

Like all time capsules, the details of the office are mesmerizing. From the water stains beneath Kestle's abandoned rain boots to the early model Polaroid cameras, machines for cutting checks, and an Art-Deco tea cart, everything is exactly as a man would have left things if he were to unexpectedly walk out of his life one day, never to return. It is the perfect portrait of the world of an art curator: all his hopes and dreams, stuffed within the 1950s equivalent of a cubicle. 

The office is still on display. A friend of mine recently visited the MIA and viewed the office, and excitedly told me all about the mysterious disappearance of the curator. She also explained how fascinating the office was, complete with cigars and a bar, along with card catalogs galore. I had so many thoughts and questions! How strange it would be to just disappear and have your office boarded up! How long would it take my own colleagues to give up on me coming back, if I went missing? I was intrigued and had to find out more.

So here's what I found—the whole thing is a giant art project, a clever hoax! It's what artist/creator Mark Dion calls "an elaborate fiction." Curator Barton Kestle isn't real—he never existed and never worked for MIA. Dion's piece is called "The Curator's Office" and was created for MIA's 2013 "More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness," where it perfectly fit the theme of the exhibit. After the exhibit, though, MIA decided to keep the office. But without the context of the "Truthiness" exhibit, visitors—like my friend—don't know that Kestle wasn't real and that the room is, instead, an elaborately crafted art display.  

Atlas Obscura explains:

Wandering through the gallery in which it continues to be displayed, visitors crowd around the open doorway, lost in the details of Kestle's "office." Comments regarding its wonderfully strange discovery are heard being passed among museum-goers. Gasps of awe, accompanied by waving friends over to "come see this" aren't uncommon. On the whole, most people fall for the story of Kestle's disappearance being told to them on the plaque adjacent to the door and fail to notice the details outlining the methods and materials of Dion's handiwork.

This means the Curator's Office falls among those exceedingly rare pieces of art that are so well executed that viewers naturally assume it is real, and the fight lies in convincing them of its artifice.

MIA also actively works to keep the fiction alive. In March 2017 the museum announced the "return" of Kestle, and published a letter on the museum website supposedly written to the board of directors of the museum by the now 88-year-old former curator. The letter explains why Kestle disappeared and why he decided to return for the museum's exhibition, "Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters". Here's part of the letter:

. . . The short version is this: I met a guy on a train. He told me about Ernst Bloch, the utopian philosopher, who had just come out with The Principle of Hope, about preparing for a perfect future. Here I was, rattling to Washington to condemn artists I'd never met before a bunch of politicians who wanted to drag us back to the past. And then what: I go out and have a Manhattan and congratulate myself on having saved my own skin? Bloch says that's literally insane.

I wanted to puke. And as I was spewing my guts in the swaying clutch of the commode, I knew I never wanted to judge anything again.

So, I went into landscaping. They used to call me "Clara" Barton in Wayzata and Long Lake and Mound, because I kept everything alive. To dig in the dirt is to feel rooted to something, and I needed that. Sometimes I would loosen the earth with a pitchfork and sink my arms in up to my shoulders, as though I were being swallowed. I suppose I was looking for a way out—or in.

After a while, I started to visit the Institute again, but I rarely saw anything on the walls that compared to nature.

Until now.

I had never heard of Guillermo del Toro. I hadn't seen a monster movie since I was in knickers. But in this show I found something I didn't even know I was looking for. Here is a mind attuned to the human spirit, the ancient animal frequency that rumbles beneath the rabble of politics and greed. Here is a vision that celebrates imperfection, and to hell with judgement.

I truly love everything about this ongoing "elaborate fiction." I love that it fooled my friend, and I love that it fooled me. The next time I'm in Minneapolis I will definitely pay a visit to the grand office of the mysterious Barton Kestle. 

More missing persons you can find at Boing Boing.