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Something Rotten in Denmark?

Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design director Christian Narkiwicz-Laine faces the feds as an indictment accuses him of fraud on an international scale.



It's not all wine-and-Brie parties and lunches at the Arts Club for museum directors these days. Besides the old drag of romancing the donors and the new horror of shrinking endowments, there are minefields cropping up all around them. There's been the fractious board at the Terra, the investment fiasco at the Art Institute, and now the big guns of a federal indictment at the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design. Athenaeum director Christian Narkiewicz-Laine pleaded not guilty this week on a three-count indictment handed down by a federal grand jury late last month. The feds have charged the museum founder and former Sun-Times architecture critic with defrauding no less an entity than the government of Denmark.

The indictment was announced by U.S. attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald with the help of the special agent in charge of the Chicago FBI office, Thomas J. Kneir. It says Narkiewicz-Laine falsified invoices, diverted funds, used the U.S. mail for fraudulent purposes, and then lied to the FBI when asked about it. But Narkiewicz-Laine's attorney Wilson Funkhouser says the feds have it all wrong.

According to the indictment, in 1995 Narkiewicz-Laine approached the Danish consulate in Chicago about cosponsoring an exhibit of Danish architecture and design at the Athenaeum. The consulate agreed to help solicit 75 Danish companies for products and, in some cases, for contributions of up to $10,000 each to support the show. The consulate and the Athenaeum opened a joint checking account to receive the funds; the Athenaeum was to be reimbursed from the account for expenses and third-party-vendor invoices. The show, "Denmark Through Design," ran during the summer of 1996. Between May and November of that year, $158,500 was raised and de-posited in the joint account and $138,000 was disbursed to the Athenaeum, in part to reimburse it for third-party bills that were allegedly either inflated or totally false. In addition, the indictment states, Narkiewicz-Laine billed three of the corporate sponsors directly and deposited the money ($8,500) in an Athen-aeum account, hiding the payments from the consulate. He is accused of bilking the Royal Danish Consulate out of a total of $62,763.

Narkiewicz-Laine would not comment on ad-vice of his lawyer. His biography posted on the Athen-aeum's Web site describes him as an "architect, writer, and poet" and a "descendent of the Lithuanian/Russian noble families Radziwill, Kacuiciewicz, and Jodko-Narkiewicz"--a pedigree that would link him to an imperial nurse to the Russian royal family as well as to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. He studied architecture at the University of Strasbourg before graduating from Lake Forest College in 1975; three years later, when he was freelancing for local art publications, Sun-Times editor Jim Hoge called out of the blue to make him the paper's architecture critic. He was there for a couple of years, during which time, according to the Web site, he also edited Inland Architect. He launched the Athenaeum, "the nation's only museum of architecture and design," in 1988 with the intention of exhibiting in office buildings and shopping malls. By '93, when the museum was operating four or five scattered galleries, he decided it needed a central location.

At the time of the Danish exhibit, the Athenaeum occupied eight floors of the former Montgomery Wards headquarters at 6 N. Michigan, including the penthouse conference room that once was Aaron Montgomery Ward's office. Narkiewicz-Laine held forth there during an interview with the Reader in 1998, when he was making plans to open a $30-million satellite museum complex in Schaumburg. He'd struck a deal to lease 20 acres of land at a dollar a year for 99 years and to rent a barn of a building on the new town square for five years at the same rate. He claimed the downtown museum was getting more than 300,000 visitors annually (though there were only three people in sight on the afternoon of the interview) and said he started it without benefit of an endowment and ran it as a nonprofit "business."

And that's what it looked like: most of the main floor was a large gift shop, and only one other floor was open to the public. The rest of the space was used for offices and storage for the museum's burgeoning collection of design artifacts--everything from blueprints to refrigerators. In 2000 the Athenaeum lost its lease at the Wards building. Since then, except for a storefront gift shop at 307 N. Michigan, its only facilities have been the building in Schaumburg and a nearby sculpture park--miles from the kind of architecture it was created to celebrate. The Schaumburg museum received a $100,000 state grant two years ago to complete an expansion that includes a coffee shop, but on a recent visit there was no coffee shop--and there were no other visitors.

In late June Athenaeum chairman Neil Kozokoff issued a statement saying the board and staff were fully behind Narkiewicz-Laine, who "has worked tirelessly for 14 years to build" the museum, "a labor of love...for which he receives only modest compensation." Kozokoff referred to the charges as "an unfortunate misunderstanding over a small business matter." Funkhouser agrees: "The amount involved here is so small that if it weren't the Danish government you'd be laughed out of the U.S. attorney's office," he says. "The indictment describes the arrangement between the Athenaeum and the Danish consulate incorrectly," he claims. "The arrangement was that the consulate got a 10 percent cut of the money that it raised from Danish sponsors and the rest of the money was supposed to go to the museum if they put on the exhibit, which they did." According to Funkhouser, the Athen-aeum was allowed to keep the money whether it was spent on third-party vendors or not. "There was a written agreement that the Danes asked the museum to sign. The museum signed it, the consulate had the chauffeur pick it up, and then [the consulate] didn't sign it and, as best as we can determine, never told anybody from the museum that they hadn't signed it." Funkhouser says the contract had been "heavily negotiated between the Athenaeum--mainly Mr. Kozokoff--and people from the Danish consulate," and the museum proceeded as though it were in effect even though they never got a signed copy back. "There's a lot more that's interesting about this," he adds. "But it will have to wait until there's a trial."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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