Douglas Druick may be 68, but he takes the marble staircases of the Art Institute of Chicago with the spring of a man half his age. One recent afternoon, he notices that, on a wall full of impressionist masterpieces, Renoir’s 1879 Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando is missing—lent to the Frick Collection in New York, damn it—and he slides into a funk. “It’s . . . challenging for me to come into these galleries when major works of art are out on loan,” he says. “I miss it, and I miss the conversations it has with the paintings around it.”
Spoken like a true curator, which he was for more than 30 years before being elevated to the Art Institute’s top job last August when his predecessor, James Cuno, left for the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles. But as the museum’s director, Druick takes a larger view. “Increasingly, I try to see things through the eyes of our audience,” he says. “After all, American museums don’t live in ivory towers.”
What Druick recognizes now is the need for change. New research shows that only 20 percent of the museum’s 1.6 million annual visitors are die-hard art enthusiasts. The rest of us need some bells and whistles—and interactivity is a good place to start.
That’s why, at his direction, the Art Institute will be one of the first to equip galleries with Wi-Fi, a major upgrade made more expensive and cumbersome by its thick walls. (The museum would not divulge the cost.) By early 2013, you will be able to access free room-specific audio tours, videos, and other supplemental materials for most galleries instantaneously on your smartphone or tablet computer. “There are so many stories to tell—art history stories, social history stories, human stories—and we’ll be able to tell them,” Druick says. “They’ll also act as slow-down mechanisms, things to get people to stop and think more deeply.”
Druick is working, too, with the Getty to put the Art Institute’s catalogs, scholarly publications, and original source materials on its website (artic.edu). And he was the driver of his institution’s ahead-of-the-curve participation in the Google Art Project, which is digitizing portions of the collections of many of the world’s great museums. (The Louvre and the Prado are among the conspicuous exceptions; this foot-dragging may be related to the myriad legal restrictions associated with putting major artworks online.) “There’s a huge potential audience out there. This is a way to reach them,” says Christine Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors.
Another way to expand the museum’s reach: innovative marketing. One example is an eye-catching mural on the Kennedy Expressway that promotes upcoming shows; look for splashy designs pushing the mid-career survey of the British video artist Steve McQueen (see “Ten Must-See Art Shows”) and Picasso and Chicago, opening February 2013.
Could the museum’s online presence become so complete, so user-friendly, that people stop visiting the real thing? Druick isn’t worried. He still recalls being “riveted” as a boy by the majesty of a Vincent van Gogh painting of trees in bloom in a museum in his native Montreal. “The question was asked of me, ‘Do you see Google replacing museums?’ The answer is no; in fact, I see it the other way around,” he says. “Familiarity breeds a desire to be in the aura of the original. Once you’ve seen La Grande Jatte in reproduction, which is nothing like the original, you want to see it in real life.”
VIEW ART VIRTUALLY: Find 155 of the Art Institute’s masterpieces at googleartproject.com.
Photograph: Jeff Sciortino; Styling: Susannah Kavanaugh; Clothing: (dress) courtesy of Tilly