A look at one of Mia’s most ardent champions.
Ella Crosby’s children remember her as the “gracious matriarch of her large family.” Her passing in 2012 at the age of 96 left an enormous void in her family and Minnesota.
Ella was one of six children and the oldest daughter of Eleanor and John Pillsbury. Her maternal great-grandfather was Civil War-era General Samuel Sturgis, for whom Sturgis, South Dakota, is named. Ella’s childhood home was only a block away from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. At the time, this neighborhood included some of the most elegant homes in Minneapolis, owned by influential and successful business leaders.
Ella was educated at Northrop Collegiate School for Girls (now The Blake School) in Minneapolis and graduated from Foxcroft School in Virginia. She continued her education at Vassar College in Dutchess County, New York, but left college early to marry Thomas Crosby in 1937. The beautiful wedding at Plymouth Congregational Church was exquisite, with each of the bridesmaids carrying ferns instead of the planned floral bouquets. Apparently, there was a florists’ strike, so flowers were not available for the bridesmaids. Ella’s father was very much aware of complying with labor unions, as Pillsbury Company had recently reached an agreement with its own labor union. Thomas’ grandfather, John Crosby, was a partner in the Washburn Crosby Co., another historic Minneapolis milling company, later to become General Mills. Incidentally, Washburn Crosby Company was the namesake of WCCO radio and television.
Thomas spent his time as a General Mills executive and later became a founder of Northwest Equity Partners. Together Ella and Tom raised six children. The family was everything to Ella, and she was indeed the cornerstone of her family. Family traditions were a large part of the Crosby family. For more than 60 years, Ella hosted an annual Christmas gathering greeting all of her guests with a very warm smile and a multitude of thoughtful questions.
Ella was also known for her sense of humor, yielding to a reputation as a very approachable woman throughout the city. In addition to entertaining and raising her family, Ella loved to share her passion for travel with her children. Ski trips, European journeys, and nature excursions made for wonderful family memories. With these experiences in mind, Ella stated, “When I look back on all the fun I have had, and the places I have traveled, the most rewarding part was that I shared these times with my family and good friends….I am glad to see that my children grew up with this same sense of responsibility and purpose that is larger than any single individual.”
Ella led by example, often rising to positions of leadership within the organizations she supported. This included being the director of Steven’s Square, then a nursing home for seniors, and the Lake Minnetonka Garden Club president. She volunteered for the Minneapolis Hearing Society and the Society for the Blind. During World War II, Ella demonstrated her compassion by volunteering as a nurse’s aide for the Red Cross.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art was fortunate to have Ella as a supporter and volunteer, including taking on the Friends of the Institute’s presidency from 1960-1962. Membership greatly grew during this period, a sales and rental gallery was installed, and the docent program started in earnest. Due to other commitments, Ella never became a docent and regretted this decision. She also served on the museum’s Board of Trustees from 1964-1972 and then again in 1976 and 1977. Ella was one of the first women to serve in this capacity.
In the 1990s, Friends of the Institute began planning for its 75th anniversary. Ella decided to commemorate her long-standing membership and desired to do something special for Friends and the museum. Also, being a granddaughter of Charles A. Pillsbury, one of Mia’s founders, further motivated Ella to find the perfect gift. Thinking back to visits to the museum, she always felt the outdoor pedestals on the 24th Street entrance seemed empty. She began to think of lions as they were believed to protect buildings from evil and, to this day, still found in present-day China flanking important institutions. As it happens, the museum was expanding its Asian art collection at this time. Ella asked then Mia Asian art curator Robert Jacobson to search for the appropriate pair of 18th-century guardian lions. They were indeed found guarding the entrance to a nondescript shop but proved too difficult to export. Instead, replicas were carved of the lions in the same style. The lions were completed in 1998, and the 1915 original stairway had to be reinforced with 30 tons of concrete to bear the 16-ton weight of the male and female lions. Apparently, it is crucial to have both a male and a female when displaying guardian lions. If a viewer approaches the animals, they will notice that the male lion holds an embroidered ball, and the female lion plays with her boisterous cub beneath her paw. Ella’s generous gift attributed to Friends, as well as a dedication to the memory of her husband Tom, remains a landmark gift to the Twin Cities, safeguarding all who enter the museum.
Ella’s brother George said of his sister, “She led a full life. She always did her best, whether on the tennis court or skiing or involved with the art institute. She was always interested in art and culture.” Her legacy lives on as her contributions and energies are appreciated and noted.
Friends Centennial History Publication Authors: Pamela Friedland, Linda Goldenberg, Mary Merrick, Suzanne Payne, Connie Sommers