The Magic Bridge

Art Institute president James Cuno showed off plans for the museum’s big new appendage at a Friends of Downtown lecture earlier this month. With a backdrop of Cultural Center windows affording a view of the construction site, Cuno conducted a slide-show tour of the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, which consists of two three-story glass, aluminum, and limestone pavilions, connected to one another and the old building by an atrium concourse.

Plans for the $350 million project, set to open in 2009, have changed radically since the museum first commissioned Piano nearly seven years ago to design an addition that would span the railroad tracks on its south side. That idea was scrapped because it turned out to be too costly, Cuno says, and because Millennium Park began to take shape to the north. Cuno, who arrived at the museum just after the park opened in 2004, says they’ve since put amenities into the plan to take advantage of the park’s popularity. Besides a public terrace and restaurant on the third floor, the addition has sprung a long tongue of a bridge–15 feet wide and 620 feet long–that it’ll stick right up the ass of Millennium Park.

No one knows more about all things visual than the Art Institute, so I must be mistaken in thinking that this attenuated ramp, which rises in a straight shot at a five-degree angle from the midsection of the park to the third floor of the new wing, will be a blight on the eastern horizon. (I’m also probably getting the wrong signals from the extruded aluminum sunscreen over the east pavilion’s glass roof. Piano has dubbed it a “flying carpet,” but to me it whispers “patio enclosure.”) Cuno says the bridge will be “gossamer light” and “just seem to hang in the heavens,” and it will solve part of the problem of getting pedestrian traffic across Monroe Street, hooking up with a second main entrance for the museum.

The Michigan Avenue entrance, which Cuno says “will always be the identity of the museum,” might seem “not just noble but intimidating” to some people. The new entrance via the bridge, on the other hand, will function like a true flying carpet, transporting park visitors to the museum before they even realize where they’re headed. “They’ll find themselves coming up our bridge, as an event, and coming to our museum,” says Cuno, “and they’ll have gotten there much to their surprise.” By conservative estimates, he says, Millennium Park will attract three million people in a summer. “If 20 percent of them go across the bridge, that would be 600,000 people. If half of those come into the museum, that’s 300,000, and most of them will likely be first-time visitors.”

What they’ll find won’t be the museum as it is now. In addition to the Modern Wing (so named, Cuno notes, thanks to the selfless generosity of donors who came up with the $50 million branding price), which will display contemporary as well as modern work, the older buildings will have their goodies rearranged. A master plan in development includes knocking the walls out of what Cuno calls the “dark hole in the middle of the museum,” Gunsaulus Hall, and setting collections up in a more logical progression. Cuno says this is a challenge, given the museum’s nonlinear configuration, but it should be possible to improve on the current crazy quilt of cultural zones and time periods. With the addition, the museum will have 35 percent more gallery space to work with and will double its space for museum education, which will be housed on the ground floor of the east pavilion.

In the future, Cuno says, covering the tracks on the south side might be revisited (the mayor reportedly wants gardens there), the city might extend the tunnel beneath Monroe to provide a direct entrance from underground parking to the museum, and the School of the Art Institute might grow up and move out. The museum might even stay open later than 4:30 PM. But all that takes money. So far, the museum’s raised $250 of the $350 million for the new wing, including an $85 million operating endowment. Rearranging the old space means hunting for more donations.

Speaking of the Art Institute’s Money

On March 1 in a Dallas federal courtroom, the SEC won a guilty verdict on six charges it had brought in a 2004 suit against hedge-fund hotshot Conrad P. Seghers, who along with his partner, James R. Dickey, had allegedly misrepresented investment information to approximately 30 clients, including the Art Institute, between 2000 and 2001. (Dickey settled with the SEC shortly before the trial.) The museum had invested $43 million with Seghers’s firm, Integral Investment Management, on the recommendation of the museum’s Atlanta-based financial adviser, Kennedy Capital. (Kennedy executives told the Wall Street Journal they had an arrangement with Integral that gave them a cut of both the management fee and any profits.) After the $43 million vanished in just over a year, Kennedy was fired and the museum’s longtime financial VP took what was described as a planned retirement. Seghers, who handed the money over to a twentysomething California fund manager, has now been convicted of fraud. The museum has its own suits pending in the matter.

Then there was that unpleasantness with the credit rating. In January 2002, shortly after new CFO Patricia Woodward reported for duty, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s lowered the Art Institute’s rating based on concerns about the loss and the museum’s exposure to hedge funds. The trustees, seeking protection in a skittish stock market, had put as much as 79 percent of the museum’s endowment in the risky ventures. The rating firms were also concerned about the number of buildings the school had acquired over the previous decade, the variable-rate debt it had taken on to buy and renovate them, and how it would pay for the Piano addition. Since then, Woodward says, the museum has reduced its hedge-fund investments to no more than 15 percent of its holdings, diversified its investments among 50 managers, beefed up its investment committee, sold five buildings to reduce its debt by $47 million, refinanced much of its remaining variable-rate debt, and balanced the school’s budget. Last week the S & P followed Moody’s lead and returned the museum to an A-plus rating.

Fred Solari, 1951-2006

John Schmitz says his business partner, Athenaeum executive director Fred Solari, was driven by love. “Many people didn’t see it,” Schmitz says, “but he had this huge drive and deep passion for musical theater, and what he really wanted to do was to produce it at the Athenaeum. Many of the accomplishments he’s known for are things he did as a sidebar to that.” Among them: 12 years devoted to turning the lovely but dilapidated Lakeview venue into a vibrant hothouse where young dance, theater, and opera companies bloomed. Solari’s unexpected death March 9 is a loss to Chicago’s performing arts community.