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The C.A.C.A. Review
An occasional publication of the Chicago Art Critics Association
April 2004, Volume 5, Number 1
April 23, 2019
Dear Professor Cuno: Jim, I’m going to jump the gun a few months, and congratulate you on your retirement from the AIC and your forthcoming new role as Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts at UCLA. Your 15 years at the AIC have been historic, of course: you inherited a museum that was superbly managed but not too exciting or groundbreaking, and leave a museum that is superbly run and with a decidedly quicker pulse. We both shared great respect for James Wood — while museums around the country struggled with finances and mission, the AIC sailed along admirably, perhaps rarely at the forefront of American museums in terms of curatorial gusto, but solid, steady, and serious. You laughed when I remarked that the museum’s Rice Wing, which looked 100 years old the day it was opened in 1988, was Wood to the hilt: tasteful, appropriate, yet somehow disengaged at its core. While you like Renzo Piano more than I do (how typical, I muttered, for a building that opened in 2007 to hire the world’s most avant-garde architect — of the 1970s!) and fulfilled the creation of the Columbus Drive wing, I thought it meant a lot that you kept your office in the old Ferguson wing.
I have many memories of your years here — you were kind enough to include me in the group that showed President Clinton around the museum when she visited here in 2010, and your decision to close the Department of Photography and place curators with expertise in photography into other appropriate curatorial departments was wise and historically appropriate. My favorite moment was when I ran into you in 2004 in the Morton Wing, in the Art Since 1960 section, and you listened to my observation that your curator of contemporary art had done a major rehanging of the collection of recent art without the inclusion of a single work of art by a Chicago artist. You agreed (or at least you nodded politely) that to posit the “Past Present Future” (the title of that installation) of contemporary art and totally exclude Chicago artists could easily be seen as contempt for one’s own community, and put out a signal, both locally and to our national visitors, that whatever the past, present, or future of art held, to your curator Chicago played no role within it. Ah, but what’s life without a little tumult?
I was heartened by your decision in 2006 to work more closely with the SAIC, and while the discovery there in 2008 of a particularly ineffectual neo-conceptual Al Qaeda sleeper group was embarrassing to us all (the threat to shoot Grant Wood's American Gothic unless the Shirin Neshat retrospective was cancelled was too delicious for words) you did a lot of good drawing the AIC and SAIC closer together. The 15 years seem to have flown by, and your students in LA (if you thought Chicago art students were provocative, you better fasten your seatbelt!) will benefit from your tales of your sojourn in the most beautiful, magnificent, cultured, dynamic, provocative, exhilarating, and complex city — on Lake Michigan.
I am going to be upfront: I have only lived in Chicago for a bit over three years now, and that is also the duration of my relationship with the Art Institute. Those three years are the tail end of James Wood’s 25-year tenure. So I, unlike my colleagues, cannot catalogue a multitude of experiences high or low, except to deduce a somewhat limited critique with shortsighted suggestions. Instead, my relationship with the Art Institute is paired with the current completion of my Masters of Fine Arts degree in painting from the same institution, and from my aerial view of its sprawling complex beneath the windows of the adjacent graduate studios. But it was always a place to visit, once a week at least, because you could and because it helped. From these positions, above and inside, the building has many facets; those that are daunting with its size yet welcoming on a late Tuesday night alone in any of the spaces not to forget congested with that interminable line and forlorn as it steams away in the early winter morning. Of course there are always the impenetrable galleries in “blockbusters” (Manet and the Sea or Van Gogh and Gauguin), but then there are the smaller and epiphanic experiences in the subdued, sparsely populated Renaissance Velvets and Silks or Unknown Maker: The Art of the American Daguerreotype. Not to forget Marlene Dumas’s chilling Time and Again or Selected Photographs 1939-1993 from Arnold Odermatt, both in the Focus Exhibitions. Obviously, the scale of the demure wins over the grand, because it is more accessible and less populated. Of course the Institute cannot drop the blockbusters, it is their job to do those, but perhaps it could contain more of these instances from different departments.
This leaves what needs to be said to James Cuno, the incoming director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago. I enjoy change and look forward to the future of the Art Institute with a president and director with as diverse a resume as Cuno’s; organizing exhibitions of Mondrian, Tiepolo, Ellsworth Kelly, and lots of drawing and print shows. In fact, given Cuno’s penchant for drawing exhibitions while director at the Harvard Art Museums, I don’t think completing what James Wood started with lining the square of hallways around the painting galleries with prints and drawings will go unfinished. In other words, the prints and drawing department can open their important collections to their own much-needed exhibition space. I think this is obvious, but I do not think I have much to suggest. I don’t know anything about running museums. I just really enjoy attending them. Terence Hannum
This is an open letter to James Cuno, the new director of the Art Institute. Welcome. There are, of course, many things I could say about the museum, both positive and negative. I will keep my discussion short and focus on one suggestion. I would like to see a program that would invite local artists/critics to curate theme exhibitions that would draw from the existing collection. I know there have been interventions in the past, probably the most notable being the Michael Asher project in the early 1980s where he moved outdoor sculptures into the interior galleries. This is not necessarily what I have in mind. I am thinking more of mining the wealth of work, much of which has been relegated to storage and not seen for decades for various reasons.
One example would be the extensive holdings of California art, primarily West Coast minimalism from the 1960s. This is work I have not seen in years, but remember well. I am thinking here of the work of Ron Cooper, Ed Moses (the resin paintings), Ron Davis, and Craig Kauffman to name just a few from memory. If memory does serve me, I think the museum even owns a James Turrell installation. I know the John McCracken red plank is almost always on view, but this would be an opportunity to give that work a context within the California “finish-fetish” plastic explosion. These were incredible works that investigated the possibilities for art making of the then-burgeoning plastics industry.
This would also be another way of extending the relationship of the museum to the local arts community that could not only prove to be a healthy move, but also an interesting one in terms of the possibilities for some exciting exhibitions. Too often the Art Institute is seen as an insular establishment. I am aware that there are several outreach programs in place, and this is commendable. This would just be another opportunity to expand and enrich those endeavors. Corey Postiglione
As often as I've gone to the Art Institute, it seems that I always find myself in the same galleries: impressionism, armor, and, as I walk through, regardless of which of the conglomeration of doors I take, I seem to find myself tracing the same worn-out circles. I think perhaps this is why I don’t visit more often. I’m tired of trying to find something that I haven’t already seen. I’ve asked for the map at the front desk, but, to tell the truth, found it rather overwhelming. Recently, I found myself taking a tour with an organization. We entered through a different door and I found myself wondering where I was at and looking wide-eyed at all the strange and unfamiliar exhibits. They were exhibits I would have seen a long time ago, if I’d known that they were there; perhaps made a special trip to see.
I’d like to see more guidance given to visitors, as they walk through the museum. One might have signs letting people know not only the name of the gallery, but also what kind of art they might expect to find in it, what galleries are at the other end, and what they show. Perhaps there might be small maps in doorways, mapping the immediate vicinity, showing what people might expect to find and what their options are for moving beyond that gallery. Arrows. I’m not sure how it would best be done, but I suspect that I’m not the only person who would enjoy my visits more if I didn't always feel so lost. Anna Poplawska
For a bit more than a decade, I've been writing near-weekly art reviews for the Chicago Reader. Generally I interview the artists whose work I'm reviewing, particularly those who are little-known, to gather biographical information. A fair number of these have been alumni of The School of the Art Institute, and a few have been current students. Since the shows I select to review are most often exhibits of strong work, I must conclude that many excellent and many more promising artists are graduates of the School, which means the School must be doing something right.
At the same time, I frequently encounter art-school graduates who lack any substantive, in-depth encounter with the work of even one other artist — not including one of the artist's fellow students or friends. Naïve artists can produce great art, but art students are hardly naifs. They are already being influenced by the work they do view, and many admit that the majority of their art-viewing time is spent looking at the work of their fellow students. What I miss is even the faintest hint of the young composer named Bach who walked hundreds of miles to hear Buxtehude play, or the aspiring writer named Joyce who learned Norwegian in order to read Ibsen. Instead, pictures from art magazines of work that's already derivative of past masters is influencing students through its influence on other students, and this cannot be healthy for the art community in the long run.
The incorporation of mass culture into art via appropriation is a trend that at best has been overdone and at worst is played out. It’s also not clear how many different ways mass culture can be critiqued through appropriation alone, when the act of appropriating its forms often winds up also incorporating its values.
Art students need to look beyond the relatively narrow milieu to which many restrict themselves. Just as the influence of African art was a key to modernist innovations in the early twentieth century, just as the Renaissance was born in part out of a study of classical art, so students need to become authentically and deeply involved with aesthetic and cultural traditions outside of the last two decades of art practice. They need to engage with a field or fields of art making not tied to our present moment, and not only see, but really become involved with such work through careful viewing (which might include travel), reading, and study.
My favorite Art Institute exhibit of the last decade was the magnificent 1998 "Ancient West Mexico," curated by Richard Townsend. This show had it all: exquisite art on the highest aesthetic level from cultures rarely seen in American museums, art that was truly different from even the pre-Columbian works that many of us know. Not only was it not especially well attended, but on my visits I hardly ever saw anyone in the age range of most art students.
While I understand that the Art Institute’s director does not have operational authority over The School, it is my hope that more can be done in the way of cooperation between the two institutions. Students should be encouraged, and if necessary assigned, to engage in a deeply serious way with the permanent collection and key special exhibitions.
That the culture of art schools is in serious need of alteration would be proven doubly true if many of The School’s students responded to the idea of more cooperation with the Museum by suggesting that the Museum mount shows of their own work. Fred Camper
Serve Suburbanites Better
The Art Institute has 105,000 members, with roughly 29,400 of them living in Chicago proper (28% of the total); 45,675 in Chicago’s suburbs (43.5%); 7,980 in the rest of Illinois (7.5%); 21,630 (20.6%) elsewhere in the U.S., and a handful overseas. By a wide margin, suburbanites are the largest group in Art Institute’s membership. What does the Art Institute do for them?
Imagine that you live and work in a suburb and want to visit the Art Institute. You can go on Tuesday evening, when the museum is open until 8 p.m., or fight crowds on the weekends. If you decide on Tuesday, plan to drive a congested highway, grab a quick dinner, and race to the Art Institute, where you’ll get 90 minutes maximum before the guards chase you out. If the weather is bad — as it so often is in Chicago — prepare for a harrowing drive and precious little quality time with the art. Weekends are somewhat more civilized. The museum may be thronged, but there still are quiet places where one can look at the art and commune with it. Suburbanites who visit popular shows on weekends may experience severe overcrowding.
Suburbanites can become “Community Associate” members in their home town, says the Art Institute. Community Associates take bus trips to major shows and have special programs during the year when Museum Education lecturers come to them. But lectures are not art and bus trips are taken during the day. What to do? Here are three ways that the Art Institute might make itself — and its collections — more accessible:
Dear Mr. Cuno,
Welcome to Chicago. I believe you will inherit a strong institution that has brought our city significant exhibits and programs. In particular, the historical shows from various parts of Asia were exceptionally strong and interesting.
However, I share with many Chicago artists and critics the belief that the Art Institute has not been a creative force in the Chicago art scene. Because we live in a smaller city than New York, London, etc., we have fewer resources for developing a viable art scene that is made visible to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, Chicago is not a place in which mid-career artists can advance their careers or obtain the incentive to enable their work to grow. We tend to operate as a farm team for New York: talented artists come here for school and to begin their careers. When they have gained some recognition as “young artists” many move on to New York or Los Angeles and leave their mark on those places.
Yet Chicago artists are busy working, creating interesting work, and generating important ideas. But who hears and sees them? Artists in Chicago are scattered. They form small groups, often delineated by age or neighborhood. There is little dialogue or exchange of ideas or artwork that goes beyond these local groups, let alone beyond the city. The few major institutions, such as yours, with the power to provide leadership in developing a strong voice for our art community, disassociate themselves from it instead.
I realize that the Art Institute has never seen its mission as supporting local contemporary art. However, it is a major institution with the resources to make a difference in this city. Some of its funding comes from taxpayer dollars. (Among other benefits, the Institute occupies prime, expensive property without paying taxes.) Therefore, it behooves the museum to give back to the city’s art scene more than its support of the art of other people and other places.
Certainly, programming exhibits that include local, mid-career artists should be a priority. But more importantly, the Institute should fund significant time for curators to leave their offices and visit artists’ studios. They should be able to investigate what is happening here instead of relying on other organizations, which have their own agendas, to determine what is interesting and worthy of disseminating. The curators know what is happening in the major art centers all over the world, but they don’t know, nor do they appear as interested in, much of what is happening in their own city.
I would like the Art Institute to generate funding and leadership to enhance the local scene by:
If the Art Institute is willing to shift its priorities just a little bit, it will not only be a great institution, it can be associated with a city that is known for its great art. Claire Wolf Krantz
The Art Institute’s Ferguson Fund Must Always Be for Public Sculpture
I’ve just finished reading James Cuno’s 2003 book Whose Muse?: Art Museums and the Public Trust. It includes six essays by prominent art-museum directors — including Cuno of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art and James Wood of the Art Institute of Chicago — offering views on what museums can do to retain, or regain, our trust in an era when art institutions are tempted to pursue policies “driven not by a mission but by the market.”
I didn’t expect Mr. Wood to mention it in his essay “The Authorities of the American Art Museum” — he didn’t — but incoming director Mr. Cuno ought to be made aware of how the Art Institute orchestrated one of the most egregious violations of the public trust in American art-museum history: the so-called “desecration” of the B.F. Ferguson Monument Fund. It may have happened decades ago, but the repercussions are still being felt today.
The facts are these: When he died in 1905, lumber magnate Benjamin Ferguson left a bequest of $1,000,000 to the Art Institute, stipulating that income must be spent on the “erection and maintenance of enduring statuary and monuments” in parks and other public places throughout Chicago commemorating “worthy” American men, women, and historical events. The first commission, in 1907, was for Lorado Taft’s Fountain of the Great Lakes, which was installed outside the museum and dedicated six years later.
By 1932 the Ferguson Fund had financed ten public sculptures. But then the museum began planning a major expansion. Because the Depression made fund-raising difficult, administrators began looking for new sources of cash. In 1933 they quietly petitioned the Circuit Court of Cook County to decide whether the word “monument” in Ferguson’s will could mean a building, specifically an addition to house statuary and other artworks. The court said it could. For over the next two decades, the fund’s income was allowed to accumulate — no sculptures were commissioned, no repairs made.
By 1955 the Art Institute had revised its expansion plans, and it went back to court to ask whether the 1933 interpretation could mean the building of an administrative wing. Now the scheme became widely known, and the resulting furor attracted national attention. People picketed in front of the museum. The city, as well as local arts and preservation groups, filed suits, insisting that the fund was to be used for public sculpture — not for private gain. But the court upheld the earlier decision. In 1958 the $2,300,000 B.F. Ferguson Memorial Building was completed on Monroe Street; $1,600,000 of the cost had come from the fund.
Meanwhile, Judge Abraham Marovitz ordered city and state attorneys to draft a new law, and in 1961 the state legislature enacted the Illinois Charitable Trust Act, allowing taxpayers to challenge the use of charitable trusts. Three years later the Ferguson Fund commissioned its first sculpture in decades, Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy, dedicated in 1967. Six more works have since been erected, including Isamu Noguchi's fountain on Art Institute grounds in 1976 and, most recently, Louise Bourgeois's Jane Addams Memorial in 1996.
While the museum was channeling the fund's income into its own coffers, Ferguson statues were left to deteriorate, with only occasional, inexpert maintenance. (Needless to say, it also deprived an untold number of artworks from being created.) Take Taft's massive Fountain of Time, for example, which was commissioned in 1913 and dedicated on the Midway Plaisance nine years later. Its recently completed four-year, $1.2-million restoration wouldn't have cost the Ferguson Fund so much money ($950,000) had the monument been properly safeguarded decades ago. The work tapped out much of the fund. By the beginning of 2003, according to Art Institute officials, about $400,000 in income was still available for projects, just about all of it earmarked for deferred maintenance and to pay for Martin Puryear's long-delayed, still-unresolved DuSable Park monument.
The Art Institute's recent financial woes have been well documented, including a $43-million hedge-fund investment loss in December 2001. The conservatively invested Ferguson Fund, I was told, wasn't affected. At the same time, the museum announced the retirement of Robert Mars, executive vice-president for finance and administration (officials said the two weren't related). Mr. Mars, who ably administered the Ferguson Fund as well as its appointed committee, was replaced by "numbers person" Patricia Woodworth.
With the Art Institute's renewed focus on the bottom line — and on ways to increase revenue — I'd urge Mr. Cuno to review the Ferguson Fund's mission and status. He and Ms. Woodworth must be its responsible stewards. In an era of market-driven policies, they must use the fund in the best interests of the public, in the best interests of public art, and never be tempted to misuse its money — and violate our trust — again. Jeff Huebner
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