Terra Firma

The Terra Museum of American Art is back on solid ground following the appointment last September of John Hallmark Neff as director and curator of collections. Though the Terra moved from Evanston to its prime location at 666 N. Michigan more than ten years ago, it remains, in Neff’s words, “a bit of a hidden jewel.” Since its founding in 1980, several directors have tried to put it on the map as one of the city’s influential art institutions, but invariably they found themselves butting heads with Daniel Terra, the museum’s strong-willed founder and benefactor. When Terra died in 1996, the museum’s board of directors realized they had to recruit a director who could stabilize the museum and realize its potential.

Neff’s background is in modern art. From 1978 to ’83 he served as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art; he then spent the next 14 years as director of the art program at First Chicago Bank-NBD. The First Chicago job may not have provided as much of a challenge as museum management, but during his tenure Neff added some 4,000 objects to the bank’s 6,000-piece collection. The position also allowed Neff to observe how the bank’s employees responded to the art placed in their midst. As Neff explains, “You can learn a lot about an audience that way.”

That sort of attitude could be just the thing for a museum that’s always been viewed less as a cultural institution than as a personal collection writ large. Daniel Terra made his fortune in chemicals and used-car loans; he served as national finance chairman for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, and Reagan appointed him ambassador-at-large for cultural affairs, a job that allowed him to sing the praises of American artists. When Terra opened the museum in Evanston, it focused mostly on American artists who were influenced by the French impressionists. But American impressionism has seldom been taken seriously by critics or academics. Still, the museum won respect for its collections of Hudson River school and American modernist paintings. It also hosted some excellent touring exhibits, including shows of work by Stuart Davis and Winslow Homer.

When he arrived at the Terra, Neff discovered only one show on the exhibition list and had to move quickly to fill in the blanks. One of the first shows he organized opened this week: “1998: New Artists in Chicago,” mounted in conjunction with the city’s department of cultural affairs, is a juried show of 39 young artists about to receive MFA degrees from area universities. If the show is a success, Neff hopes to make it a biennial event.

“I want to keep the mix interesting,” he explains, “so the Terra will become more than a once-a-year visit for people.” This summer he’s bringing in a collection of California impressionism from the Irvine Museum, and this fall the museum will host a retrospective of work by photojournalist Robert Capa. He’d also like to present a history of the skyscraper in America as reflected in such architectural ornaments as doorknobs and back plates. Adds Neff, “We intend to interpret American art very broadly.”

Though the success of these exhibits will determine Neff’s fate as director of the Terra, he initially had to concentrate on less glamorous details. One of his first improvements was the installation of brighter lighting in the museum’s foyer. “Before the new lighting, people would look in the front door and think the place was closed,” he explains. He’s also appointed a new manager for the small gift shop, and he’s revamping the store’s inventory. “You have to make the store an attractive, properly merchandised and inventoried place, because it’s another way the museum projects an image to the public.” Fortunately Neff won’t have to worry about fund-raising: Daniel Terra left a $400-million foundation to provide ample operating revenue.

Landlord of the Dance

An astronomical jump in rental fees at the Auditorium Theatre has thrown a wrench into next year’s Spring Festival of Dance. This year the Auditorium managed to land most of the festival’s major attractions by offering a weekly rent of $17,500. The Shubert Theater, which seats 2,000, had charged a comparable amount in previous years, but the Auditorium seats 2,400, and the possibility of selling an extra 400 tickets made it a real bargain for dance companies. The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, the National Ballet of Spain, the Muntu Dance Theatre, Ballet Chicago, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater all took advantage of the deal. But the Auditorium has announced that next year the rent will double, to approximately $35,000 a week. “We have our own expenses to worry about,” says David Smerling, president of the Auditorium Theatre Council. “It just wasn’t feasible to offer them the lower rate again.”

Sources at the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago say that it’s already agreed to the new rate and will book the Auditorium for its fall 1998 and spring 1999 seasons, in addition to its year-end presentation of The Nutcracker. But Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, which booked three weeks at the Auditorium this year, might return to the Shubert, which hosted its last four spring seasons. “No deals have been made yet, so I am reluctant to discuss the situation,” says Gail Kalver, executive director of Hubbard Street. But the company’s 20th-anniversary season at the Auditorium may have been less successful than the company had hoped: last week it took the unusual step of faxing other arts organizations to offer half-price rush tickets for all third-week performances.

Both spaces have their advantages: the Auditorium’s larger stage is generally considered more attractive for dance performances, but the Shubert’s smaller main-floor seating configuration allows a company to fill up the orchestra more easily when ticket sales are slow. And Susan Lipman, executive director of Performing Arts Chicago, notes that office workers can access the Shubert’s box office more easily. Lipman presented Alvin Ailey at the Auditorium as part of this year’s festival; she says she doesn’t know yet what PAC will offer next year or what venue it will patronize, but she thinks the Auditorium’s higher rent could be absorbed if the attraction were to sell out the hall.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Hallmark Neff photo by Eugene Zakusilo.