Terra Museum Gets Down-to-Earth

Robert Donnelley is on a mission: transforming the Terra Museum of American Art into a respected and well-attended community institution. In February Donnelley quietly became the Terra’s new director. “I was brought in as an agent of change,” he says, and it was at his insistence that the appointment was kept quiet. “I figured if I was any good, people would soon know about it.”

The museum, founded in Evanston in 1981 by wealthy arts patron, collector, and former ambassador Daniel J. Terra, has survived primarily on funds from the Terra Foundation for the Arts. Today it’s housed in a multistory structure at 664 N. Michigan, in the heart of one of the most well-traveled areas of the city. Though its location is second to none–and it houses some impressive examples of the work of major American artists–the Terra still is a stepchild among its peers in most respects. Observers say that’s because since its beginnings, the Terra Museum has operated as its founder’s idiosyncratic cultural fiefdom rather than a public institution that reaches out and interacts with the community.

But with the founder’s blessing, it appears, Donnelley is intent on changing things. Other museum executives think Donnelley is just the man for the job, even though he has no experience at art museums. Museum of Contemporary Art CEO Kevin Consey says Donnelley has the political skills necessary to transform the museum “from a private collection into a public institution.” Hal Stewart, the Terra’s new, first-ever director of development, says Donnelley firmly believes that the people in charge of museums must realize the arts are a business and run their institutions accordingly if they are to survive.

Donnelley may never have worked at an art museum, but he’s no stranger to art or to business. A scion of the well-known printing family, Donnelley remembers as a child asking for an Art Institute of Chicago membership instead of a bicycle. While a student at Yale, he wrote about art for the school newspaper. For 30 years he worked at the First National Bank of Chicago developing the bank’s corporate art collection and helping many of the city’s cultural institutions arrange financing. Along the way he also served on the boards of directors at the School of the Art Institute and the MCA.

Already Donnelley has initiated substantial change at the Terra. The budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30 increased to $2.3 million from $1.5 million the previous year, and it will probably go up again in the next fiscal year. Much of the additional funding covered salaries for new staffers such as Stewart and additional security. Where a certain secretiveness reigned prior to Donnelley’s arrival, he now insists all management-meeting notes be routinely distributed to the museum’s eight-member board of directors, three of whom are Terra family members. And under Donnelley the museum has hired a public relations firm for the first time.

Donnelley has had a hand in arranging exhibits with a different twist, such as the current show of outsider art by three Chicagoans: Mr. Imagination, David Philpot, and Kevin Orth. The exhibit of elaborate work made from found objects including bottle caps, hubcaps, and paintbrushes sharply contrasts with the more traditional oils on canvas on display elsewhere in the Terra. Stewart welcomes the juxtaposition. “It makes the museum less of an isolated experience and one that begins to relate to the everyday lives of a lot of people.”

Making the museum a relevant place could help Donnelley achieve one of his most pressing goals: increasing museum attendance. Attendance for the current fiscal year will be about 80,000, up 20 percent from a year earlier. Museum memberships number a mere 900, a number that’s held steady for several years (the Art Institute has more than 90,000 members and 1.3 million visitors). But Donnelley believes the museum can do much better given its choice location. “Some 92,000 people a week pass by our doors,” he notes.

Why don’t more of them venture inside? A recent marketing study Donnelley commissioned highlights at least a few of the reasons. One is the sun-blocking material that covers the museum’s windows on Michigan. “Everyone thinks it looks dark inside,” explains Donnelley. Another problem is the absence of food service; all of the museum’s existing space is devoted to exhibitions and administration. Neither of the adjacent buildings to the north and south, both owned by the museum, is ideally suited to food service or other expansion, but Donnelley is continuing to study the matter. Parking is another tough problem; area garages have been reluctant to work with the museum to provide discounts.

Down the road Donnelley doesn’t rule out selling the Michigan Avenue property and moving the museum to another site that would meet the Terra’s expanding needs. But, he says, such a decision is at least five to seven years away. In the meantime he’s launching a vigorous fund-raising campaign for the museum’s educational programs, and he has green-lighted renovations in the galleries, classrooms, and lecture halls beginning in August. And, he says, he’s finally warming to the job. “I’m in this for the long haul.”

Dirty Dealing at the Apollo?

Don’t look for Classic American Theatre founder and artistic director Tom Marshall to do business again anytime soon with Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals. Marshall isn’t happy about the way Leavitt and Fox treated him and his not-for-profit theater company, which had planned to mount a benefit staged reading of The Glass Menagerie starring Celeste Holm April 18 at the Royal George. Marshall agreed to pay $1,000 for use of the theater and the set of Lost in Yonkers, which was nearing the end of a long run there. According to Marshall, about four weeks before his benefit Fox Theatricals informed him they would be shutting down Lost in Yonkers April 10. In lieu of the Royal George and the Yonkers set Marshall was offered the Apollo Theater Center, which Leavitt and Fox also operate. The Apollo had been dark since last November, when Tour de Farce ended a brief run. Marshall agreed to the arrangement with no reduction in fee, but when he and members of his board of directors arrived at the Apollo April 18 they found it in shockingly poor condition. “The place was filthy,” says Marshall. “Our board of directors had to spend the entire morning cleaning up the place from top to bottom.” On top of that the theater was a steam bath; it was a hot day, and the air conditioning wasn’t functioning. “We’re a small theater company and we can’t afford to be ripped off,” says Marshall. “If Leavitt and Fox want to get more tenants for their theaters, they have a poor way of going about it.” Late last week Fox Theatricals operations manager Phil Eickhoff explained that the organization hadn’t had a chance to test the air conditioning yet this year and that it was mulling over the possibility of returning part of CAT’s fee. Marshall said he was told to expect a 25 percent refund. Notes Marshall: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

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