The Chosen Ones

No one can accuse Robert Fitzpatrick of championing art for art’s sake. During his first six months as director and CEO of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Fitzpatrick has appointed new administrators for membership, publications, and public relations; he’s also planned changes to the museum’s physical appearance and developed a penchant for throwing parties at the museum’s expense. But last week the former Disney executive and university administrator finally addressed the 20-month-old leadership vacuum in the museum’s curatorship: Elizabeth Smith, a 15-year veteran of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, will join Chicago’s MCA as chief curator on February 15, and Francesco Bonami, formerly U.S. editor of Flash Art International, will become senior curator on January 1. Rhona Hoffman, a local dealer who’s worked with Smith, describes her and Bonami as “high caliber” talents, and Kathryn Hixson, editor of New Art Examiner, says she’s “cautiously optimistic….Unlike Fitzpatrick, at least Smith and Bonami are connected to the international art world.” Yet both curators will face new professional challenges at the MCA, and by choosing solid but hardly world-class candidates Fitzpatrick may be delaying the question that’s dogged him since his arrival: where, exactly, is he going to take the MCA?

Smith connected with the museum through Amada Cruz, who served as acting chief curator from February 1997 through July of this year; the two women assembled the Cindy Sherman retrospective that ran first at the Los Angeles museum and then at the MCA this summer. In addition to the Sherman project, Smith has curated exhibits by Uta Barth, Catherine Opie, and Kiki Smith, the last of these a collaboration between the artist and architect Wolf D. Prix. “At the End of the Century,” a survey of 20th-century architecture that Elizabeth Smith curated, will make stops in Tokyo, Mexico City, and Cologne, Germany, before opening at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Fitzpatrick expects Smith to make architecture-related exhibits a major part of MCA programming, though the Art Institute’s resources dwarf the MCA’s. “I would hope what we do will complement what’s being done at the Art Institute,” says Smith. Despite her qualifications, however, Smith has never lived in Chicago or served as a head curator, and her entire professional career is with the museum in Los Angeles. She admits that she’ll have to bring herself up to speed on the local art scene, and helming the MCA’s curatorial department will test her management and organizational skills.

Lewis Manilow, the board member who endows the senior curatorship, became a fan of Bonami after traveling to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to see “Unfinished History,” an exhibit of art examining unresolved conflicts in the 20th century that Bonami cocurated with Douglas Fogle (the exhibit will open at the MCA on January 30). A native of Florence, Bonami moved to New York in 1986 and became U.S. editor of Flash Art International in 1990; the magazine was established in Milan during the 70s and remains one of the most respected international art periodicals, known for its advocacy of new media and the European avant-garde. After leaving the magazine in 1997 Bonami worked as a freelance curator, staging shows at the Venice Biennale and in Stockholm and serving as a consultant to the Tate Gallery in London. Fitzpatrick hired Bonami himself, and his new curators will function as equals, sharing decisions on exhibitions and additions to the MCA’s permanent collection. And though Fitzpatrick reportedly came to the museum with a mandate to generate more excitement, Smith and Bonami agree that the MCA needs serious and substantive work. When asked about the Guggenheim’s attention-grabbing exhibit “The Art of the Motorcycle,” now on display at the Field Museum, Bonami termed it “a trivialization” of art and commented, “I believe you can have excitement without diminishing the content.” Smith and Bonami say they’ve discussed specific exhibitions with Fitzpatrick, but nothing has yet crystallized.

Like Smith, Bonami will be learning on the job: he has more experience as an editor and writer than as a hands-on curator. But Fitzpatrick may have needed to act quickly to deflect any possible concerns the board might have over his renovation plans and copious spending. Reportedly he’s been hosting numerous soirees to introduce himself and his game plan to the local cultural community, many of the parties taking place at his Gold Coast home. One source familiar with the cost of Fitzpatrick’s various dinners and receptions put the running tab close to $250,000, all of it absorbed by the museum. Penny Pritzker, president of the MCA board, concedes that Fitzpatrick has done a fair amount of entertaining since he arrived in Chicago but says the cost is “nowhere near” the quarter-million mark. Rhona Hoffman, who’s been a guest at Fitzpatrick’s house, thinks the parties are a good idea regardless of their cost: “If it helps him get the word out about his agenda and brings in more funding in the process, then I think it will prove money well spent.”

In the Dark

Jam Productions and the newly formed Chicago Association for the Performing Arts are having a tough time filling the Chicago Theatre. Earlier this fall poor ticket sales forced the partners to cancel a one-week engagement of Victor/Victoria; now their three-week engagement of Evita, which began last Tuesday, has been cut to two weeks.

Rag Time

No one has trumpeted the virtues of Ragtime, its deposed producer Garth Drabinsky, or the tottering Livent Inc. more than Richard Christiansen, chief critic at the Chicago Tribune. Last Sunday the front page of the Trib’s arts section carried a feature in which Christiansen examined the first ten “captivating” minutes of Ragtime. Flanking the piece was Christiansen’s weekly column, which bemoaned the increasing puffery of newsmagazines and called The Prince of Egypt the most “overly-publicized” film of the holiday season. Do the editors listen to their own chief critic? Apparently not: the only other story on the page was a Gary Dretzka feature hyping that same film.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Francesco Bonami and Elizabeth Smith uncredited photos.