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

"He reassured me that this was not the end of art history, and then he started telling me stories," DeBiaso recalled. "He told me that this was probably made by some farmer who did this on his time off."

They were able to have the piece restored, but Jacobsen's timely help stayed with DeBiaso.

"He was that kind of person who cared about the work. But he also cared about friends and friendships," DeBiaso said.

A giant in the Asian art world and a champion of the Twin Cities art community, Jacobsen died Wednesday from complications of 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 knew how to explain Asian art history to a Western audience."

He was hired as an interim curator of Asian art at Mia in 1977, when no such department existed. He went on to become the founding curator of Asian art, establishing Mia as one of the world's leading repositories of Chinese art while developing a deep relationship with museum trustees Bruce and Ruth Dayton. They, in turn, donated millions to expand the museum's holdings, including Tibetan, Cambodian, Islamic and Indian objects, filling 22 galleries.

When Jacobsen retired in 2010, he had expanded the collection of 900 pieces of bronze and Japanese prints to 14,500 objects, including a 400-year-old Ming dynasty reception hall, and a Ch'ing dynasty scholar's study from 1797. Jacobsen wrote 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 fanatic. He stumbled upon his life's work by chance. After earning a bachelor's degree in architecture at the University of Minnesota, he went to New Zealand to study art. On the way back to the United States, he visited Japan and quickly fell in love with the country's architecture and the art.

He pursued a doctorate in Asian art history at the U, with a minor in Chinese language and literature. He also studied at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.

Curator Robert Jacobsen with the ink screen “Tiger and Dragon” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in November 1984.
Curator Robert Jacobsen with the ink screen “Tiger and Dragon” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in November 1984.

Mike Zerby, Star Tribune file

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

"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 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 scholarship and expertise."

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

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.

"In the early '80s, we were taking a tour of one of the national museums in Beijing," she said. "It turned out he knew more about their history than the people working there did because they had been true to the Cultural Revolution, and they asked him to stay and work."

Besides his wife, Jacobsen is survived by his brother Gary and sister-in-law Mary Anne of Stillwater; sister Kathy Frydenlund and brother-in-law Robert of New Richmond, Wis.; brother Bradley and wife Gina of Forest Lake; brother-in-law Tom Thunnell; a niece; and three nephews.

No services will be held. In lieu of remembrances, donations can be given to the Robert D. Jacobsen Memorial Fund at the University of Minnesota Foundation, or by mail at P.O. Box 860266, Minneapolis, MN 55486.