The Prodigal Returns

The local art scene will get a shot in the arm this fall when the Donald Young Gallery reopens its doors. Young started his first Chicago gallery in 1976, and over the next 16 years he made a name for himself showing established contemporary artists like Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra, as well as artists who made their reputations more recently, such as Charles Ray and Jana Sterbak. In 1991, just as the art market went into a tailspin, he left Chicago to open a gallery in Seattle, but the lure of the big city has convinced him to move back. According to Tom Blackman, producer of Art 1998 Chicago, Young’s return is “a major development, because Donald always produced great shows with work rarely seen in Chicago.” It’s also especially welcome after dealers Phyllis Kind and Richard Feigen each shut down their Chicago galleries and consolidated their businesses in New York City.

Young doesn’t regret the move to Seattle. “Things had quieted down on the Chicago art scene,” he explains, “and my wife and I were looking for a change and a different lifestyle.” But Young, a Brit who’s also lived in London and Paris, began to long for a more urban environment. “Once one is used to the vitality of a big city, you do begin to miss it after a while,” he says, noting that Seattle has “more of a small-town character.” Art connoisseurs in the Pacific Northwest tend to be less adventurous than those in large cities. “Consensus seems to be the key here in Seattle, but interesting art really isn’t about consensus.”

Young plans to relocate his family during the summer and then look for a new gallery space. He’ll investigate River North (though he fears rental prices may be out of line there) and the near-west side, where Rhona Hoffman and Paul Klein operate galleries. Young expects to be open for business by the end of the year. He returns to an art scene deprived of some major players but with a more established market for contemporary art than when he opened his first gallery. “No one at that time was showing the major artists of the 1960s,” he recalls. “I would like to think I can bring some energy to the scene by doing shows that have a mix of young and more familiar contemporary artists.”

Another Act of Attrition at the MCA

Two years ago the future looked rosy for the Museum of Contemporary Art. Celebrating 29 years in Chicago, the MCA was preparing to move into a $46 million new home just off North Michigan. Its board of directors was raising tens of millions to create a substantial endowment, and the relatively young institution seemed finally to be raising its profile on the local, national, and even international stage.

So what happened? The past year has brought an unending stream of firings and resignations, decimating the staff and plunging morale to an all-time low. In March 1997 chief curator Richard Francis was shown the door, then in November the museum’s director and CEO, Kevin Consey, announced that he would depart this coming September when his contract expires. Two months ago Lucinda Barnes, curator of collections, quit to become director of the Boise Art Museum.

Now comes word that public relations director Maureen King will depart at the end of June; her position is being eliminated, and public relations will be handled by her assistant, Michael Thomas, who will answer to Lori Kleinerman, director of marketing and membership. Tour and travel coordinator Noah Garber, who’s arranged paid tour groups since January 1997, is out of a job as well; when he leaves this month, his duties will be folded into the education department.

Allen Turner, a board member and past president, thinks the new building accounts for all the changes in personnel. “When you move from the developmental to the operational stages, sometimes you have staff changes,” he says. But King was one of the few remaining staffers with more than a decade of experience at the MCA, and according to Janeanne Upp, associate director and chief operating officer, firings and attrition over the past 12 months have reduced the museum’s full-time staff by a full 10 percent. A former staffer paints a darker picture: “I think just about everyone left there has an updated resume in their desk.”

King and Garber appear to be the latest victims of a substantial reduction in the museum’s operating budget for fiscal year 1999, which begins July 1. The budget for 1998 was $12.8 million; in July it will drop almost 15 percent, to $11 million. “We’re trying to cut our administrative costs after opening the new building and spending more of our money on programming and exhibitions,” explains Upp. But the budget cut might be linked to Consey’s lame-duck status: without a new director and CEO in place the museum might have trouble wooing both old and new benefactors. “I’m sure that some of our contributors are waiting for the new director,” Upp admits. Sources say the board could name Consey’s successor by June, but the new leader might not arrive for several more months.

One recent development affecting the MCA’s fortunes is the death of former board president Paul Oliver-Hoffmann last month. During the fund-raising for the new building Oliver-Hoffmann and his wife, Camille, pledged $5 million to the museum, but they never made good on their pledge. Earlier this year MCA officials said the museum would sue the couple to collect; a source familiar with the case predicted that Oliver-Hoffman’s death might hasten a settlement.

The Amazing Expanding Art Expo

This year’s Art 1998 Chicago, running May 8 through 12 at Navy Pier, will be expanded to include film and music. According to producer Tom Blackman, the fair will include “Documenta X: The Films,” a collection of art films that debuted at the annual Documenta art event in Kassel, Germany; the films will be screened continuously in meeting rooms adjacent to the exhibition. The schedule also features a concert at Park West by Poi Dog Pondering. “We wanted to give both old and new visitors to our fair added-value reasons to think about attending this year,” explains Blackman. If all goes well, Blackman wants to broaden the fair’s offerings even more in years to come.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Donald Young photo by Dominic Bonuccelli.