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|May 22nd, 2008, 05:37 PM||#1|
Join Date: Aug 2005
Location: Chicago & NYC
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I intend this thread to contain news and discussions of the Visual and Performing Arts in Chicago.
I had been meaning to post this NY Times article about The AIC's "new" director. It is not flattery when the article cites him to be very down-to-earth.
A recently deceased friend had a chance to meet Cuno when he was new in Chicago. I think it was one of the events welcoming Cuno as new director.
My friend, who was a member of the Old Masters Society, had great difficulty walking, and Cuno met him when he was trying to hail a cab back to his place after the event.
Cuno gave my friend a ride home, even though it took him all the way to Lakeview. My friend remembered the conversation as "one of the most engaging he ever had".
A Man Who Loves Big Museums
By JORI FINKEL
Published: May 18, 2008
Construction of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Peter Wynn Thompson for The New York Times
WHEN James Cuno stepped into his job as director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004, employees were a touch nervous. The departing director, James Wood, had begun the most ambitious expansion in the museum’s history. But ground had not yet been broken. And although he had raised $120 million, at least twice that would be needed.
It was a pivotal time, and after 24 years at the museum Mr. Wood was handing the reins to a man who had led the Courtauld Institute in London for less than 24 months.
Then late one afternoon, one employee after another caught sight of Mr. Cuno moving into his office — by himself. Although the museum has a staff of nearly 600, he was carting and carrying stacks of books on his own. It was an early sign that Mr. Cuno, who goes by Jim and not James, would be a down-to-earth, hands-on leader, one with a deep commitment to recent art-historical scholarship.
“I’m a bit compulsive about my library — the way it’s organized, which is rather intuitive,” said Mr. Cuno, 57. “And physically putting the books away helps me to remember where they are.”
This month he can add a new title of his own to those shelves: “Who Owns Antiquity?,” published by Princeton University Press. While it is far from his first book (he has written about Jasper Johns and Joseph Beuys, among other artists), it is his first dedicated to the political minefield of cultural patrimony. A condemnation of cultural property laws that restrict the international trade in antiquities, the book doubles as a celebration of the world’s great border-crossing encyclopedic museums, among them the Art Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The book carries a back-jacket blurb from Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Met. He calls it “a must-read for all concerned with the fate of our ancient heritage.” Others are calling Mr. Cuno one of the front-runners to succeed Mr. de Montebello, who has announced plans to retire.
In an interview at his office on a rainy April day Mr. Cuno sat at a coffee table near advance copies of his book. Blueprints for the Art Institute’s expansion by the architect Renzo Piano lined the wall.
He wore a dark suit and a clear plastic watch with orange and yellow hands and colorful gears. “It’s a Swatch watch designed by Renzo Piano,” he said. ”He gave it to me. I teased him: ‘What did you really do here? You just took the face off and colored the gears?’ But those are his characteristic colors and sense of transparency.”
He first worked with Mr. Piano over a decade ago in a failed attempt to build a new museum at Harvard, where Mr. Cuno headed the university’s museums. “I had the support of the president, but did not get the support of the corporation of Harvard — the trustees,” he said. Mr. Cuno later introduced Mr. Piano to Mr. Wood, who hired him for the Chicago expansion.
Now, in one of those satisfying full-circle moments, Mr. Cuno is overseeing the completion of Mr. Piano’s design for the Art Institute’s new Modern Wing. When it opens in May 2009, this three-story building will house galleries for modern and contemporary art, architecture and design. At 264,000 square feet, it is over three times the size of Mr. Piano’s new Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles.
The Chicago project carries a price tag of $370 million, including an endowment to keep up the new space. When Mr. Cuno arrived, just $125 million had been pledged or received. He has since raised over $200 million, including $50 million from an anonymous family that declined naming rights for the wing.
He chalked up his success in part to the “instant and palpable” excitement generated by Millennium Park next door, with its popular sculptures by Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa and a band shell by Frank Gehry. A footbridge will connect the Modern Wing to the park.
He credited Mr. Wood for making his job easier: “There are always challenges to running a museum, but it’s not like I had to overhaul the place because it was broken.” (One cloud on Mr. Wood’s watch, the loss of $39 million of the museum’s endowment by the hedge fund Integral Investment Management, inspired a lawsuit by the museum that is still making its way through the courts.)
Mr. Cuno talks in terms of renovation, not innovation, and that is his goal for the museum’s main 1893 Beaux-Arts building. He said that by the end of this year 60 percent of its galleries will have been renovated and reinstalled to make for “greater clarity and coherence of presentation.” Still, Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day” from 1877 will retain pride of place at the top of the grand staircase.
He has also just completed a rebranding project with the Pentagram design firm. “We realized this is a moment of renewal for the museum, and we wanted to communicate that graphically,” said Mr. Cuno, noting that the museum’s name has received 20 graphic treatments in a decade.
He pulled out a magnet with the Art Institute’s new logo, pointing out “the Frank Lloyd Wright red” of the background and the “clear and crisp look” of the Topaz font. “The font has this contemporary edge but at the same time recalls Wiener Werkstätte or Secessionist architecture,” he said. It also harks back to antiquity in at least one very visible way: the letter U in “Institute” appears like a V in classic Roman fashion, as it does on the museum’s original Michigan Avenue facade.
Abbott Miller, a partner at Pentagram, was impressed by Mr. Cuno’s commitment to that angular U, which elsewhere “could have been focus-grouped to death and disappeared,” he said. “I have worked with directors of a number of large art museums, and I think everyone has a stake in rebranding. But with Jim I would say there were more meetings, more attention to detail, more investment — though I never thought it was excessive.”
Mr. Cuno said the choice of font was no small matter. “I think all of these things are terribly important because they represent the institution — everything from the museum shop to our Web presence to our graphic identity to our publications to our exhibitions to how our guards greet you when you arrive.”
But an expansion that created opportunity has also brought controversy. This summer the museum is lending some 92 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces once scheduled for temporary storage to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth in a deal involving payment by the Texas museum. Most museums loans are free or quid pro quo.
“It was said by some that we rented the pictures,” Mr. Cuno said. “That’s just not what we do. The Kimbell is covering costs associated with mounting the exhibition, with producing the catalog and with reframing the pictures.” He declined to disclose the total amount the Kimbell had paid, except to say that published estimates of $2 million were inaccurate.
If the critics are vocal, so are his supporters. James Rondeau, curator of contemporary art at the Chicago museum, for one, praised Mr. Cuno’s energy and his traditional — “I don’t want to say old-school”— leadership style. “He has a terrific dual focus on institutional growth as well as on the important core values of the museum — the collection, exhibitions, and scholarship.”
While his own background as an academic is in 19th-century French printmaking, Mr. Cuno has become best known for his writing and speaking about the role of art museums today. At Harvard he started a program for art museum directors that led to “Whose Muse?,” a book of essays that he edited about museums and “the public trust.” The overriding theme is that museums should take themselves seriously and not become theme parks.
This sense of a museum’s civic duties also shapes his new book. The title, “Who Owns Antiquity?” is disingenuous, as the book’s answer is clearly nobody, or everybody. In a polarized debate that has pitted archaeologists against collectors, he takes the increasingly unpopular pro-trade side but seeks to give it an ethical framework.
Mr. Cuno contends that “the accident of geography” should not give nations exclusive claims on archaeological material that happens to be found within their borders. He asserts that a country’s cultural patrimony policies reflect its political or diplomatic agenda more than a commitment to preserving culture. And he argues for the revival of partage, a practice in which museums or universities aid the excavation of an archaeological site in another country in exchange for some of the artifacts.
“People will assume my argument in favor of partage is a thinly disguised argument for imperialism,” he said. “But partage helped to create not just the university museums and encyclopedic museums in this country, but also museums locally on site — like the national museums of Afghanistan and Iraq.”
An Air Force brat who attended high school near San Francisco but moved around a lot, Mr. Cuno drew on a wide range of sources for the book, including Thomas L. Friedman, the columnist for The New York Times; the Indian economist Amartya Sen; and the Palestinian-American cultural critic Edward Said.
He also champions the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s theory of “cosmopolitanism” — a kind of moral worldliness — as an alternative to nationalist ideology.
In his preface Mr. Cuno thanked Mr. Appiah for their conversations over the years. He also thanked Mr. de Montebello, who read — and apparently also copy edited — the first full draft. “I’m a terrible proofreader, so he corrected some spellings,” Mr. Cuno said.
As for Mr. de Montebello’s job, Mr. Cuno said nobody had contacted him about it. And if the Met were to call?
“It would be impossible not to have a conversation because of the importance of the museum and its role in the profession,” he said. (In an e-mail message later that day, he put it somewhat differently: “I have not spoken with anyone at the Met nor do I intend to.”)
He glanced around his office at the Art Institute. “To put it simply, this place is a fit,” he said. “I believe I have a personality that is Midwestern.”