MCA: Room at the Top

Eight months after the resignation of chief curator Richard Francis, the Museum of Contemporary Art is losing its director and chief executive officer, Kevin Consey. Consey announced earlier this month that he will leave when his contract expires in September 1998 or as soon as the MCA board chooses a successor. Few in the local art community were surprised by news of Consey’s departure; for months rumors had been circulating that he was under siege from the board. “He was a great administrator but not the utmost in soul and grace,” notes one art dealer who had dealings with the director.

Consey completed the herculean task of funding, erecting, and opening the MCA’s $50 million new building on East Chicago, but according to art dealer Richard Gray, there was “a certain incompatibility between Kevin and the MCA’s mission. It appeared that the institution under his direction was not able to project and communicate a clear sense of what its mission should be.” Others maintain that running a museum like the MCA is never easy. “Creating a sense of excitement in a contemporary art museum is the most difficult thing to do in the world,” notes gallery owner Roberta Lieberman, who considers herself a good friend of Consey’s. Unlike the Art Institute, which can count on public recognition of a name like Renoir or Monet, contemporary museums need to find creative ways of attracting large audiences.

Consey says he came to the MCA eight years ago to build a museum, and he’s succeeded. “I completed my mission and wanted to take some time off for myself,” he says. Lieberman also thinks it was time for Consey to step down. “Kevin was under tremendous pressure, and for his own health it was time for him to slow down.” Consey says he’ll teach in the MBA program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management before announcing any future job plans.

While Consey seems pleased to be moving on, some observers believe that his days at the MCA were numbered–dealing with its board of directors is a no-win situation. “There has always been a battle for power between the board and the director at the MCA,” says art dealer Paul Klein, who considers the museum’s often elitist, “holier-than-thou” attitude a turnoff. But after Consey’s announcement, MCA board chairman Penny Pritzker insisted that his decision to resign was entirely his own.

Clearly the first task at hand is filling the MCA’s growing collection of empty executive offices. Pritzker is forming a search committee to replace Consey, and to avoid possible conflicts the process of hiring a new chief curator has been put on hold until a new director is named. Pritzker claims that “the institution is running well.” But Lieberman thinks the ongoing managerial limbo will have a negative effect on the museum: “Now that people know the director is leaving, it’s bound to put a tremendous strain on the staff.”

Sources close to the search committee say that it will examine administrators at museums of similar stature who might make a lateral move to Chicago. Pritzker’s ideal director would be a strong leader, a world-class fiscal manager, and a player in the contemporary art scene, but the MCA’s management vacuum may scare off precisely the kind of candidate it’s after–if such a person exists.Even after nearly a decade at the helm of the MCA, Consey says running the museum “never got any easier.”

Hams Across the Water

Four years ago an upstart Chicago improv comedian named Andrew Moskos wrote to the Amsterdam tourist office; he wanted to open a Second City-style comedy club in the Dutch city. The tourist office told him he was crazy. Amsterdammers didn’t go to clubs where Dutch wasn’t spoken, and foreign tourists wouldn’t come because they didn’t speak English and wouldn’t understand the topical humor.

But Moskos and his troupe of improv actors–Boom Chicago–bought their airline tickets, put collected savings of $8,000 in their pockets, and forged ahead anyway. Boom Chicago debuted in a tiny space behind a bar just off the Leidseplein, one of several large plazas that dot central Amsterdam. Its first production, “Off the Bike Path,” featured five actors performing skits and games about current affairs, life in Amsterdam, and cultural differences between nations. English-speaking tourists accounted for most of the initial audience, but the Dutch began showing up in ever-larger numbers, drawn mostly by the novelty. Within a year the company moved to a 200-seat cabaret, added a kitchen, and started serving meals before the show.

Just last month Boom Chicago scored its biggest coup yet, settling into the historic Leidseplein Theater on the square itself. Boom Chicago is leasing the theater from the giant Heineken Brewery and will produce there year-round, a significant expansion from their six-month season in the previous space. Moskos says his company had spent about six months looking for a new home when a group of Heineken executives saw Boom Chicago. “The Heineken people not only liked the show, but they saw how much beer was being consumed.” Even though the brewery was considering more lucrative lease offers from Hard Rock Cafe and T.G.I. Friday’s, Moskos convinced Heineken that Boom Chicago would probably outlast either restaurant.

Now Boom Chicago is becoming a presence beyond Amsterdam. Members of the company recently sold out several weekend shows at a plush theater in the Hague. Moskos has traveled to London to line up an agent for performances there, and Boom Chicago is scheduled to play the Edinburgh Festival Fringe next year. He’s also negotiating with a Dutch production company for a Boom Chicago television show that would be subtitled in Dutch. Yet Moskos hasn’t cut his ties with Chicago: next week he returns to hold auditions for new company members. He’s looking for four good improv artists, and he plans to offer them contracts and respectable salaries. “No one will have to wait tables to live in Amsterdam and work with us,” he promises.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kevin Consey photo by Eugene Zakusilo.