MCA Loses a Curator

Less than a year after opening its new $46 million home, the Museum of Contemporary Art will have to find a new chief curator. Richard Francis abruptly resigned last Thursday after four years at the helm. In that time he was both praised for exhibiting important contemporary art and sharply criticized for his oddly academic tastes.

MCA director Kevin Consey maintained “I was expecting it” but wouldn’t elaborate. Consey said Francis “produced work that was highly professional and his exhibitions were well liked by the public.” But he also indicated that the museum is looking for a new chief curator “who could create a better synergy among the academic departments of the museum.” Reached at home, Francis declined to comment, saying, “I think we should not talk.”

A local art dealer who had spoken to Francis recently says he was “bored” at the MCA. Others claim the feelings of dissatisfaction were mutual. Former MCA chairman Allen Turner would only say that things “did not work out.” Francis came to the MCA in January 1993 from England’s Tate Museum, and he headed a department here that included three other curators: Lynne Warren, Lucinda Barnes, and Amada Cruz.

Francis’s sudden departure may have been precipitated by the MCA’s growing pains, as its move into a new facility has resulted in heightened expectations for the organization. “What the museum is striving to do is step up to become a world-class institution,” says Penny Pritzker, who became board chairman last January. By most accounts, Francis was an affable curator with a deep love and knowledge of contemporary art. But he had his detractors. One former MCA staffer characterized “Negotiating Rapture,” Francis’s opening exhibit in the new MCA building, as “a total flop” and claimed his past shows revealed a tendency to favor “European white male artists.” Francis’s next MCA offering was to have been an exhibit of work by the dead British painter Sir Stanley Spencer. The show is still slated to open in February 1998.

The new chief curator will also report to a new boss. The board has decided to create a position, assistant director of programs, to act as an intermediary between Consey and the curatorial staff. Pritzker says a search committee will soon begin considering candidates to replace Francis.

Some observers would like to see Madeleine Grynsztejn take the job.

Grynsztejn, a former curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, was reportedly a leading candidate for the MCA’s top position four years ago. At the Art Institute, she was responsible for the 1995 exhibit “About Place,” a survey of contemporary art in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. She left Chicago several months ago for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

Theater League Loses a Member

The League of Chicago Theatres is facing its first sign of dissent since Marj Halperin took over as its new executive director last January. Doug Bragan, owner of the Ivanhoe Theater complex, says he’s quitting the group at the end of March and will start up his own ad placement service for theater companies that will compete directly against the league. The league currently offers discounts on newspaper advertising to its members.

Bragan says his defection was precipitated by a new policy requiring all league members to reserve a minimum of 24 tickets each week for the group’s Hot Tix booths, which offer half-price tickets to shows on the day of performance. He calls the new rule “an unwarranted interference in how we market our shows. We do a lot of day-of-performance business at our box office, and we don’t want some of our shows on Hot Tix.” Bragan says two long-running shows–Hellcab and Late Nite Catechism–have never used Hot Tix while at the Ivanhoe. Halperin says the policy gives Hot Tix offerings greater predictability and will ultimately help renew interest in a flagging theater scene: “We are using Hot Tix as a form of audience development.”

Bragan’s exit means the league will lose one of its biggest supporters. Several years ago he loaned the group cash when its finances were in disarray and it appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Bragan says he’d return to the fold if the league showed some flexibility in its new Hot Tix policy. “I hope that won’t be very long in coming.” Meanwhile, he’s moving ahead with his competing service. Initially he’ll try to provide deeper discounts on Tribune ads only. Bragan estimates his rates will be more than 10 percent below fees charged by the league for Tribune “ABC” listings, which can run as high as $188 for a one-inch column in the Sunday arts section. Bragan says he can also undercut the league by about 5 percent on display ads and still make a profit. He believes the majority of his business will come from theaters who do not belong to the league, as well as from other types of arts organizations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Doug Bragan photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.