A search committee has been formed to find a replacement for Museum of Contemporary Art director Robert Fitzpatrick, who announced last month that he’ll be stepping down next year after a decade on the job. It’ll be interesting to see if they offer the cool half million in annual salary and benefits that he’s been getting. With average annual attendance stuck around 215,000 or less for the last few years (the traveling Warhol show goosed last year’s to 275,000), Fitzpatrick’s effectively been collecting more than $2 for every visitor who walks through the door. When he leaves the museum will be celebrating its 40th anniversary and about to face competition unlike any it’s seen before: the Art Institute’s glassy new wing for modern and contemporary work, set to open in 2009.

Fitzpatrick, who wasn’t available for an interview, is credited with smoothing things out after staff turmoil and financial losses earlier this decade and for getting the guards into Gap gear. But during the regime of the former EuroDisney exec the Chicago Avenue fortress has arguably generated more interest as a performing arts venue and singles bar than as a visual art destination. Still young enough to be disparaged as a playground for its founders and trustees (and what museum isn’t?), the MCA has a deep-pockets board in place, headed by Helen Zell. Now it needs a director who can get it in the game and keep it there, even as the big kid down the street steps onto the field. And maybe a bridge from Water Tower Place to the front door.

Art, Unwanted

“Art Hard Sell Even When It’s Free” was the headline on a Tribune story this week about an attempt to find new homes for 16 sculptures created nine years ago for the village of Des Plaines. The wavelike concrete works and their surrounding plantings, which cost over $300,000 according to the village, were meant to represent the river and prairie grass, but in the opinion of many passing motorists they looked more like a collection of tombstones clustered around a “Welcome to Downtown Des Plaines” sign. Last fall, after years of discussion about whether they projected a desirable image, they were banished to storage. The sculptures were offered to local organizations and schools, but only the Des Plaines Historical Society showed interest, saying it might take three.

The law gives artists the right to claim their work in situations like this, but the name of the artist whose work has been so sorely received was absent from both the Tribune story and another account in the Daily Herald. It’s Nick Patera, and he’s vice president of Teska Associates, an Evanston landscape design firm.

Patera says it was difficult to come up with something meaningful for Des Plaines: “Other than the first McDonald’s, there’s not a whole lot there, and we weren’t going to make golden arches.” He says the waves–knee-high, a foot thick, three or four feet long, and 1,200 pounds each–were meant to stand in a river of grass, and are not what he would call art. “That would be pretentious,” he says. “It was a landscape installation.” And no, he doesn’t want them either.

What an Investment

The city is preparing to buy back the Prairie District building it donated to the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in 1996. Planning Department spokesperson Connie Buscemi says the City Council will vote on an ordinance that allows the city to exercise its right of first refusal. “The museum board informed us that they were planning to enter into a lease/sale agreement with Black Orchid” that would reportedly turn the building into an event space, Buscemi says. “We want to make sure it’s used for the public benefit.” According to the agreement, the city can buy the building back at current market value, minus any donations. The building, worth $300,000 11 years ago, is now reportedly worth at least $2.5 million. Even after subtracting what it’s given the vets in loans, donations, and grants over the years, the city could still end up laying out $800,000 or more in cash (the ordinance authorizes up to $2.5 million) to get the building back.

Staffed for Success

Chicago is a standout in “Arts and Culture in the Metropolis,” a new study by the Rand Corporation that examines the climate for arts organizations in 11 metropolitan areas, including Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsurgh, and Phoenix. In four of the five categories studied–technical assistance, presentation, promotion, and economic development–Chicago gets a top ranking; only Denver does as well. The city’s only midlevel assessment is in the grants category, which favors large individual donations. (Chicago does, however, give away more money in total than any of the other cities.) But the most startling number comes in a table comparing the size of cultural affairs offices. According to the Rand study, Chicago’s, which includes the staff of the city tourism office, has 300 employees; the next largest office has 31. Cultural affairs says Rand got it wrong: in 2005, the year studied, the office had 82 employees.

Department of Marriages of Convenience

When the Sherwood Conservatory of Music moved into its new building at 1312 S. Michigan eight years ago, it was surrounded by parking lots. Since then, says executive director Kathy Butera, condominiums have gone up all round, parking has grown scarce, and some students have fallen away. The school usually has an enrollment of about 1,000 people of all ages at that location, but now, Butera says, “we’re in a gap. There’s not enough parking for the old students and new residents who might walk to lessons haven’t settled in enough yet.” Sherwood, which has been struggling to make ends meet for a while now–last year it suffered a $300,000 shortfall on a $1.9 million budget–decided last fall that it didn’t feel strong enough to endure even a temporary dip in enrollment on its own, and the board began scouting for a merger partner.

They didn’t have to look far: Columbia College, whose dance studio is right next door and to whom Sherwood had sold its former headquarters in ’97, was interested. Voila–the Sherwood Conservatory of Music at Columbia College Chicago (pending due diligence). Sherwood gets a parent organization with administrative infrastructure and high visibility; Columbia gets yet another south Loop building in exchange for taking on less than $1 million in debt. Columbia board chair Allen Turner says any of Sherwood’s nine full-time employees whose jobs turn out to be redundant will get a chance to work at the college. The two organizations do share a maverick entrepreneurial spirit: Sherwood, once a degree-granting college itself, was founded in 1895 by William Hall Sherwood, who as legend has it put his piano on a wagon and toured the provinces to create demand for his far-flung empire of piano studios. It was, Butera says, “one of America’s first franchises.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/AP photo/Charles Red Arbogast, Godfrey Carmona.