In 1978 the Art Institute hired a new director, Alan Shestack, from the Yale Art Gallery. When Shestack declined the job a few days after his appointment was announced in the press, it was reported that his wife didn’t want to move to Chicago. There was considerable speculation at the time that Shestack actually turned down the job because of Art Institute politics. Feigen’s book tells a story far nastier than what many had imagined.
Shestack made two more visits to the Art Institute, and it was on the second of these that he first encountered [former board chairman] Leigh Block, who was visiting Chicago from his retirement home in Santa Barbara…. It was on this second visit that the job description was defined as vice president, reporting to [Lawrence] Chalmers, who as president objected to anyone carrying the title of “director.” … Block, despite having moved away to Santa Barbara, had by no means removed his talons from the Art Institute…. Leigh took Shestack on a stroll through the galleries, pointing out all the paintings he and Mary had donated, making no bones to Shestack about who was in charge–geography notwithstanding–and when Shestack indicated his intention to change some of [the late John] Maxon’s idiosyncratic installations, Block told him that in deference to Maxon’s memory, and for an undefined length of time, nothing should be rehung. Meanwhile, one of the trustees, not realizing Shestack was Jewish, took him aside and told him that if it bothered him to deal with Block and Alsdorf, he should relax and not worry, because when Alsdorf’s term was over, there would never again be a Jew in charge. Another local lady, not realizing Shestack was Jewish, was dealing with Jim Alsdorf, and said she knew how difficult it was dealing with Jews. Shestack, unused to Middle Western social mores, and realizing that it was not, after all, a real directorship he was being offered, decided it was not the job for him…. For the first time in some 40 years, peace finally settled on the Art Institute in 1980, when James Wood, director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, was hired as full director.
Reached in Washington, D.C., where he is now deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, Alan Shestack had no comment on Feigen’s version of events.