Interview with James Cuno, President of the Art Institute of Chicago

JAMES CUNO:

James Cuno, President of the Art Institute of Chicago

The year-old $294-million Modern Wing is by all accounts a huge success, boosting attendance at the Art Institute by a third—to 2 million visitors annually—giving the city an architectural gem from Renzo Piano, and vastly expanding exhibition space. You have graciously pointed out that much of this was already in the works when you arrived in 2004, so what’s next? Something perhaps to secure the Jim Cuno legacy?
You either grow or die. Because we collect works of art, we always need more space. The next project is to decide what we need to do next. Where we can build. Gallery space. Conservation laboratories.

What kind of art do you need more room for?
Contemporary art, architecture, and design; new art is being made. And currently we need more space for Asian art, European decorative arts, no doubt American art.

The Modern Wing opened with a huge Cy Twombly show. To some of us less-educated art fans, his paintings seem overly large, slapdash, unfinished. Is there something you can say to explain why we should like Twombly?
I’m not sure there is.

Oh, try.
It does seem to be aggressively gestured and unfinished. There is childish pleasure to it and the sophistication of his erudition—the references he makes in the words he writes on the paintings. The Menil Collection in Houston has a Twombly Pavilion. Big painting. Forty feet long. It’s a building that’s never crowded. One day, a guard heard noise in the gallery. A naked woman was dancing in front of the painting. And more recently [in France], a woman kissed a Cy Twombly—left a mark of her lipstick on it.

Which raises the question: Do you prefer that Art Institute visitors kiss the work or dance naked in front of it?
Oh, boy. The naked visitor is nonintrusive to the painting.

What became of the blockbuster exhibitions we used to see?
Once upon a time, there was greater corporate support. With that support came an advertising budget. Matisse [closing June 20th] will probably attract 250,000. It’s beautiful, ambitious, landmark. It has changed our understanding of the man. But ten years ago, maybe 500,000 would have come.

Did you fail to snag any fabulous recent exhibitions?
Two. I tried to get Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures. It went to the Met, National Gallery, Houston, San Francisco. It was too late to get it. And Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa, currently at the British Museum. I would have liked it to come here.

The endowment is down, and you’ve had to cut costs. Yet when you lent 92 Impressionist paintings—while their galleries were being redone—to the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, you got grief for “renting” them out (though you said the Kimball merely paid to reframe them and produce a catalog). Would it be so bad to rent out some art?
The Kimball’s a peer institution. It allowed us to refresh the paintings—bring them back to Chicago with new frames, new scholarship. But to yank them off [the wall] and send them somewhere, just to get some cash, doesn’t seem a responsible thing to do.

 

Photograph: Bob Stefko

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