Tom DeBiaso was dean of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design when a 12th-century Chinese ceramic piece mysteriously broke in his office. Robert Jacobsen, the curator of Asian art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, learned about the overturned accident.

“He assured me that this wasn’t the end of art history, and then he started telling me stories,” recalls DeBiaso. “He told me this was probably made by a farmer who did this in his spare time.”

They were able to restore the piece, but Jacobsen’s timely help remained with DeBiaso.

“He was one of those people who cared about work. But he also cared about friends and friendships,” DeBiaso said.

Jacobsen, a giant in the Asian art world and a champion of the Twin Cities art community, died Wednesday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 77.

“He taught people how to love Asian art,” said Susan Jacobsen (who is not related to the late curator), former director of public programming at Mia. “He was able to explain Asian art history to a Western audience.”

He was hired as interim curator of Asian art at Mia in 1977, when such a department did not yet exist. He became the founder and curator of Asian art, establishing Mia as one of the world’s leading repositories of Chinese art, while developing a close relationship with museum administrators Bruce and Ruth Dayton. They in turn donated millions to expand the museum’s collections, including Tibetan, Cambodian, Islamic and Indian objects, filling 22 galleries.

When Jacobsen retired in 2010, he had expanded the collection of 900 bronze and Japanese prints to 14,500 objects, including a 400-year-old Ming dynasty reception hall and a 1797 study by a Ch’ing dynasty scholar. Jacobsen has written more than 30 books, produced and narrated a six-part series on Chinese art for Twin Cities Public Television, and gave more than 300 lectures.

But he wasn’t always an Asian art buff. He stumbled upon his life’s work by accident. After earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota, he went to New Zealand to study art. On his way back to the United States, he visited Japan and soon fell in love with the country’s architecture and art.

He obtained his PhD in Asian art history from the University, with a minor in Chinese language and literature. He also studied at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.

In 1987-88, Jacobsen curated a major exhibition of contemporary Chinese artist Wucius Wong in Mia, an important step for an American museum.

“Not many 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 US-China relations normalized in the mid-1980s, interest in Asian art skyrocketed. He began working with the Daytons 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 science and expertise.”

When former Mia director Evan Maurer went on medical leave in 2004, Jacobsen and chief operating officer Pat Grazzini ran the museum. Jacobsen helped oversee two major renovations at Mia, including a three-year $50 million expansion that opened in 2006. The University of Minnesota honored him with the Outstanding Achievement Award for his work. (One of his parting gifts is a collection of 10,000 China Studies slides, which will eventually be digitized.)

Growing up in Roseville, Jacobsen met his future wife, Patricia, in the late 1970s. They married in a Buddhist-style ceremony. She remembers his travels to China, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and the Silk Road through Afghanistan and Pakistan, some of which she accompanied.

“In the early 1980s, we toured one of the national museums in Beijing,” she said. “It turned out that he knew more about their history than the people who worked there because they had been loyal to the Cultural Revolution, and they asked him to stay and work.”

In addition to his wife, Jacobsen is survived by his brother Gary and sister-in-law Mary Anne van Stillwater; sister Kathy Frydenlund and brother-in-law Robert of New Richmond, Wisconsin; brother-in-law Tom Thunnell; a niece; and three cousins.

No services will be held. In lieu of commemorations, donations may be made to the Robert D. Jacobsen Memorial Fund of the University of Minnesota Foundation, or by mail at PO Box 860266, Minneapolis, MN 55486.

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