Pure Exhibitionism

In October 1996, when John McCarter came to the Field Museum from the corporate consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton, some wondered where the museum would be headed under his leadership. Interviewed for this column six months later, the new president and CEO said he wanted to “underscore that the Field is a place to come for learning and for fun”; he seemed to feel that unless the museum significantly broadened its cultural appeal to the general public, it might have trouble maintaining its donor base and ultimately its reputation as a world-class research institution. After three years McCarter and his administrative team have had a chance to show their colors, and while the Field’s experiments in pop history may have forced it to swallow its dignity on occasion, they’ve succeeded in rais-ing the museum’s profile around town.

Nothing reflects McCarter’s populist vision for the Field better than “Cartier: 1900-1939,” a stunning exhibit of art deco jewelry, clocks, watches, cigarette boxes, and other objets d’art created by the House of Cartier in Paris. The show runs through January 16, and Sophia Shaw, director of exhibitions at the Field, considers it a feather in the museum’s cap: “These kinds of exhibitions do allow us to be seen as a more dynamic institution.” The exhibition, she insists, is more than just a glitzy display of gems: collateral materials for the show explain how designs for many pieces were based on archaeological artifacts and how the jewelry reflects the fashions and cultural traditions of Paris during that era.

Jointly organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London, “Cartier: 1900-1939” was never intended for the Field, nor was it something the Art Institute might have brought to Chicago. “We tend to have exhibitions that relate to our collections,” says Art Institute spokesperson Eileen Harakal, “and we don’t collect jewelry.” But according to Shaw, several museum staffers saw the exhibit at the Met last year and had no trouble selling McCarter on it. The Field contacted Judy Rudoe, who was lead curator of the exhibit at the British Museum, and Rudoe agreed to lend a hand in moving the exhibit to Chicago. “She was able to keep meticulous records of the show as it was mounted at the British Museum,” explains Shaw, “which helped us when it came time to present it at the Field.”

The Cartier exhibit is part of a major campaign to dust off the cobwebs at the museum. According to Shaw, the Field began to reduce the number of touring shows it hosted in the early 80s, focusing instead on internal research and exhibits drawn from the permanent collections. But in the 90s, as museums began to compete more aggressively for the public’s attention, the Field realized it needed to shake off its image as a gray repository for rocks, bones, and taxidermy. This year the museum will host nine traveling exhibitions, more than twice the number presented a decade ago, and some of them include a separate admission fee, which increases revenue. “We like having a changing marquee show,” says Shaw, “because it helps people understand we are really many different museums in one museum.”

Yet some of those museums blur the line between history and hokum. Last November the Field welcomed “The Art of the Motorcycle,” a collection of more than 70 bikes dating back to the 19th century; in concert with the exhibit the museum invited easy rider Peter Fonda to talk about his love affair with the motorcycle and offered a film series that included Beach Blanket Bingo and Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town. Accor-ding to a museum spokes-person the exhibit attracted an unusually large male audience, a victory of sorts given the fact that most museum visits are initiated by female heads of households. Apparently emboldened by that statistic, the Field is now presenting “The Chicago Bears: 80 Years of Gridiron Legend,” a collection of trophies and other memorabilia; WSCR is broad-casting live from the museum before Bears games, with guests like Jim McMahon and Mike Singletary scheduled to appear, and the Field is offering a $1 discount to every visitor with a ticket to the game. In between the exhibit and the game, patrons can stop off at the museum’s McDonald’s.

Unfortunately, the crossover gimmicks aren’t having much of an effect: so far this year the Field’s attendance has actually dropped 3 percent (from 1,163,367 to 1,125,973), though Shaw thinks the Cartier exhibit will give the museum’s numbers a bump by the end of December. Next year the museum will have two big drawing cards, both of them above reproach: in March the Dead Sea Scrolls will return to Chicago for the first time in 50 years, and in May the museum will finally unveil Sue, the world’s largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex, which it purchased in October 1997 for more than $8 million. Field staffers are planning more than 16 different tie-in events for Sue’s formal debut, which has been scheduled to coincide with the release of a Disney animated feature about dinosaurs. The museum has put considerable thought into the smallest details, like whether the curtain at the unveiling should rise or fall (it will rise). With so much attention focused on Sue in 2000, the number of traveling exhibitions next year will drop to 11. But Shaw foresees no change in the Field’s overall game plan of keeping the schedule as eclectic and enticing as possible–the museum wants to be sure it doesn’t wind up a dinosaur itself.

Fosse’s Shrinking Posse

Before he was deposed as CEO of Livent Inc., Garth Drabinsky liked to boast that the productions he sent to Chicago were mirror images of the originals. But the edition of Fosse now playing at the Oriental Theater is a far cry from the show that premiered in Toronto 14 months ago. That production featured 37 dancers; the Tony Award-winning version on Broadway has only 32, and the new producer, SFX Entertainment Inc., has whittled the touring cast down to 28. Such downsizing has become common even with Broadway shows: the casts of both The Scarlet Pimpernel and Beauty and the Beast have been reduced, presumably to fit the shows into smaller theaters, lower the running costs, and possibly permit longer engagements. According to one source familiar with the original Fosse, the version at the Oriental also “has more of a Carnival Cruise Lines look,” referring to flashy metallic curtains adorning the stage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.