By Mark Swartz
A few weeks ago Siskel and Ebert could be seen on Letterman, squabbling over the artistic merits of The Rock and the number of croissants Ebert ate in Cannes. Now they can be heard over personal audio devices distributed in the lobby of the new Museum of Contemporary Art.
Push 586 to learn about "Sherman and Performance," narrated by Gene Siskel: "The predominantly female roles that Cindy Sherman plays are derived from all forms of visual representation." Push 585 for "Art World Commercialism," narrated by Roger Ebert. Push 584 for "Professional Basketball," narrated by Gene Siskel; it's an appreciation of Jeff Koons's Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank.
Basketball art. The museum has got this city's number.
"What ambiguity there is in exalted things," Don DeLillo writes in The Names. "We despise them a little." While the new museum, with several times the exhibition space of the old MCA, a video theater, a performance space, and a sculpture garden, is an exalted addition to Chicago's cultural landscape, it inevitably comes burdened with little extras that, depending on your willingness to forgive, are either merely unfortunate or a little bit despicable.
Siskel and Ebert, for instance. I was told they were chosen because theirs are among the most recognizable voices in Chicago. But it's obvious their position as middlebrow cultural authorities was meant to reassure the average museum visitor, who, it can be assumed, is reluctant to embrace art much beyond Monet or Seurat. Siskel and Ebert will alleviate fears that the art is too frivolous (Koons), too feminist (Sherman), too gay (Felix Gonzalez-Torres), or too intellectual (Bruce Nauman).
The audio devices, phonelike gadgets the museum rents out, were provided by the Pittway Corporation, a manufacturer of alarm equipment whose support of the museum earns it the title "contributing sponsor," which means its donation was anywhere between $100,000 and $249,999. Other major sponsors listed on the plaques that flank the spacious lobby include AT&T, Bank of America, Marshall Field's, Sara Lee, and Philip Morris. But will corporate America tolerate subversive or antiestablishment art?
Lucinda Barnes, curator of collections, promises that the museum will regularly exhibit "very edgy work." She points to the hiring of onetime Randolph Street Gallery director Peter Taub to oversee performance programs as evidence of the MCA's commitment to an art form with perhaps the greatest potential to challenge complicity and convention (as well as the one that attracts the most scorn from journalists and would-be censors).
Corporate sponsors gave not quite $5 million of the $63.5 million raised so far by the campaign for the new MCA, and chief curator Richard Francis emphasizes that there is no corporate sponsor for the premiere show, "Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives." The exhibition, organized by Francis, is a complex interplay of text, maps, architectural drawings, and artworks by contemporary as well as historical figures. "Negotiating Rapture" looks at spirituality while it introduces the museum as a place of contemplation distinct from the shopping and business beyond its doors. At the same time, the name of the show reminds one of the tensions between soul and dollar that inevitably accompanied the museum's rebirth.
Even "poetic rationalism," the phrase coined by architect Josef Paul Kleihues to describe the style embodied by the new building, speaks of a balance between opposing forces. Yes, you can show poetic and challenging works of art in an exalted setting. But be rational, please, and leave room for a bookstore, a museum shop, and space to rent for anyone wishing to celebrate an especially good fiscal year.