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New Kid on the AIC Block: The Art Institute Welcomes a New President

“I am convinced that museums are obliged to build on behalf of their public a rich and diverse collection of the world’s art and the art of our time.”

By Arts & Culture

An interview with new museum President and Director James Cuno

It’s not just students who will be among the new faces at the Art Institute this year. The Board of Trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago, the parent organization of both the school and the museum, hired a new President and Director of the Art Institute, James Cuno.

Though new to the Art Institute community, Cuno has been around the museum scene for a while. He comes to Chicago from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London by way of notable stints at the Harvard University Art Museum, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth, and the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. Besides serving as director, he also taught in many of the schools’ Art History programs. F Newsmagazine interviewed Cuno to find out his opinions on the Art Institute, working with art students, and the future of the museum.

F News: What attracted you to the Art Institute and to the job of president and director?

James Cuno: The Art Institute is one of the greatest museums in the world and our nation’s greatest civic museum. It is admired by the world over and beloved within Chicago and the region. The chance to work with the Institute’s great collections and staff and with and for the people of Chicago is a chance of a lifetime and I am thrilled to have been given that chance.

F: What are some of your impressions of the strengths and weaknesses of the current collection?

JC: The museum is probably best known for its Impressionist paintings, 20th century works of art, old master drawings, photographs, and Japanese prints. But it is also very strong in textiles, archaic Chinese jades, African art, South Asian sculpture, and the decorative arts of Europe and America. Weaknesses? There are none. But we need to enrich our holdings in Ancient Mediterranean art, Islamic art, Chinese sculpture and bronzes, European sculpture, and Tibetan art. And of course, always, contemporary art.

I am convinced that museums are obliged to build on behalf of their public a rich and diverse collection of the world’s art and the art of our time. Only museums have the responsibility to preserve examples of the world’s greatest artistic achievements for all of time. And we take that responsibility very, very seriously.

F: How will the Renzo Piano addition affect the collection and what changes will you prioritize for the future?

JC: The Piano addition will provide much needed additional and beautiful space for the Institute’s large and growing collection of modern and contemporary art and for education. The museum is, as I noted above, known the world over for these parts of its collection, just as it is for its museum education. By moving these collections and functions into the new wing, the remaining collections and functions will have additional room to grow, which they badly need as well.

The new wing will allow us to rethink and reorganize the way our visitors move around the museum. Currently, this can be challenging. There are a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs, and even a few dead ends. The new wing will help resolve some of these problems. And it will offer a much desired physical, visual, and emotional connection with Millennium Park and the view on to the dramatic architecture of Michigan Avenue north of the museum.

I have, as yet, no priorities for the museum, only to learn much more about it, about the Chicago-area community, and about the latter’s expectations of and interests in the museum.

F: Do you foresee new opportunities to work with rotating exhibits featuring local or SAIC alumni?

JC: I am sure there are.

F: What do you think the role of the Art Institute is in helping educate artists, particularly School of the Art Institute (SAIC) students?

JC: The museum is, at least, a vast and rich repository of examples of prior art. Students can come and engage with the collections easily and regularly.
Chicago is very lucky. It has both a great museum and a great school in the Art Institute. And it is known both for its collections and for training and educating artists. The two institutions—the museum and the school—are, in the day to day working of things, two different institutions, and they have to be: each is too complicated and important to be administered otherwise. But still, we have every opportunity to work together, and I know that we will.

One thing I hope you will come to understand about me is that I have the highest regard for artists, living and dead. It is because of the work that they have done and are doing that we, who work in museums, were inspired to do our work in the first place. Artists and works of art are crucial to our personal, civic, and national well-being and we in museums work with and on behalf of both; and it’s thrilling.

F: In what ways do you think there are opportunities for the school community to be more intimately involved with the museum?

JC: I am not sure. I need to know a great deal more about how each institution works. But I should think there are opportunities for internships, shared programming, the promotion of art and artists, and perhaps even, at times, as has often been the case, exhibitions and the curation of exhibitions.

F: How will you work with the President of SAIC to encourage and strengthen this unusual partnership of museum and school?

JC: Tony [Jones] is a much admired and leading school president. I need to meet and talk with him and learn more from him about the school, the museum, and the city. The very least we can do is get to know each other well and meet often. And not just Tony and me, but throughout the two institutions.

F: In the Art Institute’s announcement of your arrival they quote you as referring to the importance of the “quality, integrity and civic mindedness” of the museum and its former director. What does it mean for a museum to be civic minded?

JC: As I mentioned earlier, only museums are given the responsibility to collect works of art and preserve them for the rest of time in trust for the public. That is, only museums are asked by the public to build collections (in our case, of the world’s great artistic cultures), and to do so for two reasons: because great works of art should be preserved and Chicago as a city has decided that, as every great city throughout history, that part of its greatness as city lies in its contributing to the preservation of the world’s art; and because the citizens of Chicago have wanted for more than one hundred years, and want far into the future, to be given access to such great collections for their personal enjoyment and education, for the inspiration and opportunities, for spiritual renewal great works of art can offer, and for what they represent about the history of our world and our current tastes and predilections. In these respects, museums embody the ambitions of their public, in our case, Chicago and the region, and we have got to husband and advance those ambitions by being attentive to principles of quality and integrity in everything that we do.

F: Do you plan on making changes to the Art Institute’s funding portfolio? Do you think that admission costs should be an important revenue source?

JC: I want to advance the good work of the museum. This means increasing and diversifying its funding. Admission fees are necessarily a part of this, unless, as in the United Kingdom, they are replaced by direct government grants. But, as in Chicago they aren’t, admission fees are modest, voluntary, and necessary. And we need to do everything we can do to keep them within reach of all of our visitors. And the surest way to do this is to encourage membership in the museum. Only the Metropolitan Museum has more members than the Art Institute. And that’s a sign that people want to support and belong to the museum, and a sign that the museum is doing a great deal right.

F: How do you plan to make the museum more accessible to new audiences?

JC: I want the museums to be accessible to everyone who wants to come to the museum. Already more than a million people come every year, and most of these by far, are from the Chicago area; and so we are clearly accessible to a lot of people. But still there may be some who feel that they want to come but are intimated by the museum and its institutional grandeur. We have to understand why that might be the case and respond directly to it.

I want to make sure that everyone who wants to come to the museum can come, and can get from the museum what they came for. Not everyone will want to come to the museum. Museums aren’t for everyone, no more than baseball games, television, pop concerts, or swimming are. But for everyone for whom museums are of interest, we want to make sure that we encourage them to come in to and derive pleasure, knowledge, solace, whatever, from the work that we do and the works of art we hold in trust for the public.

F: What do you think the Art Institute will look like, and how will it function, in 20 years? What aspects of this future are the most exciting to you?

JC: I don’t know. I think the chance to be part of this great institution and of the institution’s relationship to this great city is the aspect of the future that most excites me. I have the very highest regard for all the work that Jim Wood [the retiring Director and President of the Art Institute] during his tenure as President and Director of the museum. And if I can preserve and advance his legacy even a little, I will be both pleased and proud.

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