Late in 2004, Chicago's Terra Museum of American Art will close its doors for good. Fifty of its best paintings and all 350 of its works on paper will be placed on long-term loan at the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago will then have two major art museums -- the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Terra's current leadership -- Elizabeth Glassman, director, and Elizabeth R. Kennedy, curator -- states that the Terra Foundation for the Arts, which owns the art collection and operates the museum, will remain active. The Terra's branch Museum of American Art in Giverny, France, will stay open. The Terra Foundation will fund public education programs, fellowships and assistantships, summer residencies in France, symposia, publications and touring exhibitions drawn from the Terra's collections.
We wish the Foundation well, but the bottom line is that Chicago had three major art museums and now it has two. The Terra Museum never came close to fulfilling its promise during its 16 years in Chicago.
What went wrong?
The Terra is closing because it costs the museum about $17 for every man, woman, and child who walks through the door. Growing attendance and membership might have boosted income, spread expenses over more visitors, increased contributions and brought the museum closer to the break-even point. But the Terra is nowhere in Chicago. Nobody sees the shows. Nobody cares about the museum anymore. Closing was inevitable.
Daniel Terra (1911-1996) founded -- and destroyed -- the museum that bears his name. Terra was an engineer who developed a chemical that made today's high-speed offset printing possible. In 1940, he founded Lawter International, Inc., to manufacture printing inks and chemicals. As Lawter prospered, Terra started to collect art. He concentrated on American art after 1955, and, in 1980, opened the Terra Museum of American Art in Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.
The original Terra Museum was jumbled and charming. Paintings and drawings hung everywhere. There were Remington bronzes in vitrines. A visit was like being let loose in a millionaire's mansion while he was out of town.
Trouble began in 1987 when the museum moved to an office building on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Five stories of this structure were converted into exhibition space. Visitors pass through a shop and coatroom on the first floor, take an elevator to the fifth floor, and then walk down a ramp to double-height galleries on floors four and five and floors two and three. The fifth and third floor lobbies have small exhibition areas where individual works or small shows hang. There is no lounge or restaurant.
The Terra's exhibition galleries are perfectly serviceable for a mid-sized museum, but the location is not. There are no parking facilities nearby and no accommodations for groups. There is no side entrance, which means that school buses either double park on busy Michigan Avenue to let children out or park a block or more away so the children must walk through the streets.
The Terra's move to a larger, more formal exhibition space exposed the collection's weaknesses: it lacked the quality work needed to fill a museum. Strong, imaginative leadership could have overcome this, but Daniel Terra was a foul-tempered boor who fired one museum director after another and isolated himself in Chicago's art community. A continuous stream of horrible publicity upstaged the museum's chaotic programming. Attendance and membership never met expectations.
The museum might have made a fresh start in 1996 after Terra's death. Instead, the board of the Terra Foundation engaged in long, costly, well-publicized struggles, in and out of court, for control of the museum and its collection. Lawsuits were all we ever heard about. The battle continues to this day.
Now, when all is lost, the Terra Museum is presenting a series of exhibitions that suggest what might have been. None of the shows that we have seen to date works very well or justifies the claims made for it. Nonetheless, the exhibitons do present excellent art that Chicago would otherwise not have seen. If the Terra had shown work like this for the past 15 years, it would not be closing.
The current presentation is "Modern Matters," a series of six related exhibitions that explore early modernism in American art. The first of these, "Out of the Shadows: Helen Torr, A Retrospective" (60 works by the late wife of Arthur Dove) was presented in summer of 2003. Up now are "Debating American Modernism: Stieglitz, Duchamp and the New York Avant-Garde" and "Leaving for the Country: George Bellows at Woodstock." On Jan. 24, 2004, "Conversion to Modernism: The Early Works of Man Ray" opens and runs to Apr. 4, 2004. These first four shows in "Modern Matters" were assembled at other museums.
"A Transatlantic Avant-Garde: American Artists in Paris, 1918-1939" is scheduled to run Apr. 17-June 27, 2004. This exhibition is organized by the Terra's museum in France. "Chicago Modern, 1893-1945: Pursuit of the New" is on view July 16-Oct. 31, 2004. Organized by Kennedy and her staff, it is the final exhibition at the Terra Museum.
Elizabeth Glassman describes "Modern Matters" as an "anti-blockbuster," suggesting that the Terra is examining American Modernism from different angles in six shows rather than presenting one super-ambitious monster show. Taken as a whole, "Modern Matters" reflects "the importance of what it meant to be modern," Glassman states. She adds that "Modern Matters" provokes comparisons between the artistic debates in New York from the Armory Show through the 1920s, events in Paris between the wars, and modern art in Chicago from 1890 through 1940. The solo shows of Torr, Bellows and Ray present three modernists who worked in different ways.
Stieglitz & Co.
"Debating American Modernism" and "George Bellows at Woodstock" are up now. "Debating American Modernism" argues that Marcel Duchamp, who lived in New York City from 1915 to 1918, challenged Stieglitz and his following of American artists to abandon landscape and organic forms and adopt more modern urban and mechanical forms. Changes in the work of some American artists after about 1920 are attributed to Duchamp's influence. The work we see does not support this contention.
Stieglitz' following comprised Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler. All are major artists who had responded to modernism before Duchamp arrived. (Remember that Stieglitz gave first American shows to Picasso, Czanne and Matisse.) Hartley's shield-like semi-abstract paintings are influenced by American Indian imagery. Paul Strand experiments in his photographs with abstraction and semi-abstraction. Dove paints semi-abstracted landscapes.
Duchamp's group, which came to be called the New York Dadaists, included Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Joseph Stella, along with John Covert, Jean Crotti, Morton Schamberg, Beatrice Wood and Marius de Zagas. Fountain (1917), the urinal signed "R. Mutt," and some readymades represent Duchamp in this show.
The work by Duchamp's friends in "Debating American Modernism" is too scattered, uneven and self-conscious to have seriously influenced mature artists like Hartley, Dove, Stieglitz and Strand. Picabia's mechanical imagery is intriguing, but it points backward to Futurism. It's hard to imagine the Stieglitz group taking artists like Covert, Crotti and Wood very seriously.
The third portion of "Debating American Modernism" presents young American artists of the '20s -- John Storrs, John Marin, Joseph Stella, Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth -- whose work is said to have responded to the "rich dialogue" between Stieglitz and Duchamp. We see evolution here, not influence. These artists are exploring fresh visual material and their work seems much more up-to-date than that of the Duchamp group.
It does not matter that "Debating American Modernism" hardly hangs together. It is a beautiful show with much excellent, unfamiliar art. "Debating American Modernism" increased our admiration for Demuth and Sheeler. We had our first experience of the Strand-Sheeler film Manhatta (1920) and Sheeler's Doylestown House photographs. The work of the '20s Americans is consistently strong -- a great treat.
"George Bellows at Woodstock" presents 45 paintings and drawings that Bellows (1882-1925) made between 1920 and 1924 at a summer retreat in Woodstock, New York. Curator Elizabeth Kennedy sees a Modernist in these landscapes and portraits, but Bellows strikes us as a painter in the American landscape tradition whose work talks to Grant Wood and John Marin.
The exciting thing about "George Bellows at Woodstock" is what it shows us of Bellows. He was an excellent draftsman with a facility for rendering outdoor light. His portraits are so full of life that his subjects seem ready to jump out of the frames. To the end of his days, Bellows continued to experiment and challenge himself. It was wonderful to see so much Bellows in one place.
Over the past 16 years, Chicago became so exasperated with the Terra Museum that it simply tuned it out. Now, at the twelfth hour, we see what might have been.