James Cuno is the new director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago, succeeding James N. Wood, who is retiring after 24 years of service. Cuno inherits a world-class museum thats a bit adrift. He will be challenged to control museum finances, cope with a stalled building project, and keep exhibitions on the straight and narrow.
The Art Institute exhibits world art from all periods of history. Over the past decade, the museum has moved into contemporary painting and sculpture, sometimes at the expense of traditional programs. At first, contemporary work was taken from storage and hung in a reclaimed area of the museum. During the late 1990s, the Art Institute announced that it wanted to build a new wing, primarily for contemporary and 20th-century painting and sculpture. Contemporary art was recently elevated to departmental status.
Contemporary art is hardly neglected in Chicago -- or at the Art Institute. The museum now has two large exhibition galleries for its permanent collection of contemporary painting and sculpture. It hosts traveling exhibitions of contemporary work and its departments of photography and architecture both show work by living artists. Chicago has a Museum of Contemporary Art, several smaller contemporary art spaces and about 50 serious art galleries. This writer is unaware of any public demand for more contemporary exhibitions at the Art Institute.
The $285-million Wing
Heres the story of the new wing. In 1999, after reviewing proposals from 18 architects, the Art Institute hired the Genoa-based Renzo Piano Building Workshop to design a new exhibition building that would expand the museum and replace an abandoned theater in the northeastern corner of the museum campus. In May of 2001, Piano presented drawings and models for a $200-million, 290,000-square foot glass-walled structure with 75,000 square feet of exhibition space.
In the original design, utilities go below grade and the ground floor has a public entrance, a restaurant and facilities for the 150,000 schoolchildren that visit the Art Institute in groups each year. The second floor is an exhibition area with loft-height ceilings to accommodate giant contemporary paintings and sculptures. The third floor has exhibition space for 20th-century, African and Pre-Columbian art. Topping the wing is a 225-foot-wide "luminous, sun-shading structure" that Piano likens to a floating umbrella. Pianos design also improves pedestrian traffic flow within the existing museum.
In September of 2002, citing the weak national economy and unresolved "functional and esthetic problems," the Art Institute reduced the wings total square footage to 255,000 and postponed its opening to 2007-08 from the original 2005-06. In February of 2003, the wing shrank again to 220,000 square feet with 60,000 square feet of exhibition space. Money was apparently not coming in as expected.
As everyone waited for Cuno this past summer, the Art Institute embargoed information about the new wing. Late in July, Patricia Woodworth, the museums executive vice president for administration and chief financial officer, told Artnet Magazine that groundbreaking is "not scheduled yet because we must have the money before we begin." To date, she said, the museum has received "$100 million in cash and pledges". Once the design is made final, the public will be asked to contribute the remaining $98 million in construction costs and an $87-million endowment to pay for guards, lighting and maintenance.
Bottom Line: Cuno must solve the design problems and raise $185 million before construction can begin. According to sources in the architectural community, he was hired specifically to get the new wing up.
A Cy Twombly Fan
Cuno comes to Chicago from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, which he led for about a year. From 1991 to 2003, as director of the Harvard University Art Museums, he doubled the budget and staff and raised $55 million in a capital campaign whose original goal was $37 million. Earlier, he led two university art museums.
Cuno is said to have left the Harvard University Art Museums when his wish for a contemporary wing there was thwarted. Soon after he arrived in Chicago, he told a local newspaper that he wanted to develop contemporary art at the Art Institute and cited Cy Twombly as an artist he hopes to collect. But after his hiring was announced in January of this year, he told a Chicago newspaper that the Art Institutes primary responsibility is "to acquire, preserve and present the collections that [it] holds in public trust." Wary of museums that market themselves like fast food chains and have "super-hyped temporary exhibitions," he said that financial pressures must be met "responsibly." Cuno praised the Art Institute for presenting ticketed shows that "derive their strengths" from its permanent collection and contribute to scholarship.
The Art Institute will surely not become a circus if Cuno buys Cy Twombly paintings, but contemporary art is still the new kid on the block and we wonder just where his priorities are. The Art Institute faces tremendous financial pressures, which might be relieved by rethinking the new wing. Also, undue emphasis on contemporary art and earned income has distorted Art Institute programming and denied the public.
Hedge Funds and Layoffs
At the moment, the Art Institute has its finances under control. During the late 1990s, seeking higher returns, the museum invested 59 percent of its $667-million endowment in the risky private partnerships known as hedge funds. All went well for a while. The funds delivered a 10.6 percent return and net assets reached $726.5 million in 2000. At the same time, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago issued $135 million in bonds to purchase some downtown Chicago office buildings for classrooms, dormitories and income.
The stock market collapsed in 2000, crippling investment returns, and the real estate investment never performed as expected. Late in 2001, the Art Institute announced a $43 million loss on hedge funds purchased from Integral Investment Management of Dallas, Texas. Alleging fraud, the museum sued to get its money back. Meanwhile, net assets tumbled to $693.4 million in 2001 (with a $14.9-million operating loss), $592.3 million in 2002 and $575.5 million in 2003.
Patricia Woodworth was hired in 2002 to put the Art Institutes finances in order. She has found safer investments, laid off staff, sold nonperforming real estate, outsourced security, cut library hours and made the restaurant a profit center. She wants to increase earnings from the shops, restaurants and special events like weddings and meetings.
Shop and restaurant earnings are good, but the Art Institutes best long-term revenue sources are visitors, who become members and contributors, says Eileen Harakal, vice president for audience development and public affairs. Membership, which she estimates at 105,000 in 2004, peaked at 141,206 in 2002, when thousands signed up after seeing the blockbuster exhibition, "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South." Ticketed exhibitions bring in new members, but many dont renew and Harakal is studying ways to keep more of them. She has programs in place to attract young professionals, increase suburban membership and serve families.
What Art Will We See?
According to the Art Institute, the new wing will free up exhibition space in the main museum building to show work thats been in storage for years (e.g., the Medieval collection) and to have a greater variety of small exhibitions. As the wing project has dragged, the public has lost out.
A case in point is the prints and drawings department, which for many years had organized exquisite small shows of work from the museums collection. During the late 1990s, the Art Institute demolished its prints and drawings galleries, constructed a cloakroom in the space and rebuilt the nearby print conservation area. When the exhibition galleries disappeared, so did the small print and drawing shows, to the dismay of Chicagos arts community.
Douglas Druick, who serves as curator of European painting and curator of prints and drawings, explains that the Art Institute integrates prints and drawings with the permanent painting collection, which makes many classic works on paper accessible. Acknowledging that his department lost exhibition space to the new cloakroom, he explains that he had to take the long view. "We urgently needed a new conservation facility and got absolutely everything we wanted," he states. "Its much larger than the old one and completely state-of-the art." When the new wing goes up, "well get the big exhibition space adjoining our staff offices, rebuild it with flexible walls and have small print and drawing shows again. The question is not whether this will happen, but when."
Another exhibition problem relates to finances. Because ticketed (i.e., blockbuster) shows bring in revenue and new members, has the Art Institute been tempted to make some exhibitions into blockbusters? The answer seems to be yes. "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte," on view this summer, was a monographic show about a single work. The exhibition included paintings by Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and other Neo-Impressionists who are said to have influenced Seurat. But instead of just getting one Monet, we got four -- and it seemed that some of these works were filler. Next summer we will get a Toulouse-Lautrec blockbuster, even though the Art Institute had a major Lautrec show in recent memory.
The pressure to embrace contemporary art seems to be coming from the museums trustees, many of whom have collections of contemporary art that they want shown -- and validated -- at the Art Institute. There is ego gratification in this -- and the possibility of financial gain. We will probably get the new wing whether we want it or not, but before we do, the project deserves a careful rethink. This should be James Cunos first order of business.