In autumn of this year, James N. Wood, director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago, will retire after 25 years of service. James Cuno, who has directed the Courtauld Museum in London and the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, will succeed him.
We owe James Wood a tremendous debt of gratitude. In 25 years, he transformed a haphazard institution into one of the world's great art museums. He did this by never losing sight of his mission, which is to serve the public by preserving and presenting works of art.
Preserve and Present
Thanks to the leadership of James Wood, today's Art Institute of Chicago is a much better place to view art than ever before. In 1985, the European painting galleries were refurbished and rehung with the paintings chronologically grouped in medium- to large-scale galleries and contemporaneous prints and drawings in adjoining hallways. Visitors view the paintings in an appropriately expansive setting and look at the works on paper in a more intimate environment. Instead of a long, incoherent parade of paintings, the Art Institute delivers a variety of artworks in a flowing historical presentation. We see much more art than we did before -- and it's much easier to understand and enjoy. Thank you, Mr. Wood.
In 1988, the Art Institute constructed the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Building with galleries for the European Decorative Arts and Sculpture; galleries of American Arts with a central sculpture court; and Regenstein Hall, a large, flexible exhibition space for temporary shows. These facilities now present portions of the Permanent Collection that were jumbled previously and give the public an orderly way to view visiting exhibitions. It is the art that we see now. Thank you, Mr. Wood.
Another major achievement came in 1992 with construction of the Galleries of Chinese, Japanese and Korean Art -- a separate and appropriately muted environment for Oriental art. Three-dimensional works are particularly well presented in small, window-like spaces. Many visitors, myself included, have a special love for the Japanese print exhibitions, which change often and without notice. The screen room, which was designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, may be the most beautiful spot in the Art Institute. It is surely the most contemplative. For all this, thank you, Mr. Wood.
These are only three of more than 40 renovation projects, which have completely transformed the Art Institute. Consistently, the museum has found ways to show more artworks than ever before -- and in a coherent context. That's what art museums are supposed to do after all.
James Wood has befriended art collectors and attracted major gifts, which enrich almost every part of the permanent collection. The museum has exhibited many promised donations, allowing the public to see work that might not be shown again for years. Donations have made it possible to mount path-breaking shows, such as the recent "Intimate Encounters: Paul Gauguin and the South Pacific," which assembled 54 works on paper by Gauguin, most from the Chicago collector Edwin McCormick Blair. The Art Institute still loses major collections from time to time, but Wood has greatly improved its batting average and the public has profited. Thank you, Mr. Wood.
What is a Museum?
Museums pay no taxes, but they are expected to serve the general public. Since expenses always exceed income, museums must either solicit donations or earn money through admission fees and sales of merchandise. To balance the books, some museums in recent years have thrown standards to the winds, transformed themselves into entertainment venues, and competed for crowds with sports franchises, amusement parks, and the like. Dumbing down their product, they have lost focus and betrayed their mission.
James Wood has kept the Art Institute on the straight and narrow for the past 25 years. He has raised standards as he expanded collections, programming and income. Though the museum earned large sums from a few blockbuster shows, it has never presented an exhibition simply for the money. Commercial activity, such as the shops at the end of large traveling exhibitions, never intrudes upon the art.
Museums are subject to political pressures. Special interest groups demand recognition in museum programming and these claims are justified. Chicago's minorities pay taxes and rightfully expect that public museums will serve their needs. The Art Institute complies without losing sight of its mission or permitting itself to be used for propaganda.
As we write, the Art Institute is presenting "The James VanDerZee Studio," work by the Harlem photographer, in honor of Black History month. The VanDerZee show serves Chicago's black community as it should, but its merits transcend race. It is an art exhibition, not a political act.
So thank you Mr. Wood. You have kept the faith. The good you have done will live after you.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.
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