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Fearless Leader

Executive thrill seeker Robert Fitzpatrick finds a new challenge: leaping into the void at the MCA.

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Fearless Leader

Sitting in the Museum of Contemporary Art's cafe last Friday afternoon, Robert Fitzpatrick seemed edgy. Just hours before, trustees had voted unanimously to appoint him director and CEO of the museum, but Fitzpatrick kept glancing at his watch and staring into space. "I have to make a call to the president of Columbia University before 5 PM," he blurted out to a public relations staffer sitting nearby. "Please don't let me forget."

Fitzpatrick, dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia, had good reason to feel disoriented, given the haste of his appointment. Just three weeks ago he received a call from an executive headhunter who asked if he would be interested in pursuing the directorship. With no museum experience, Fitzpatrick will take over an institution racked by firings and resignations and suffering from a leadership vacuum created when director Kevin Consey announced that he would leave this fall. In the wake of Fitzpatrick's appointment, many local observers are wondering how soon he will cross swords with the board, a group of contemporary art aficionados with a reputation for muscling in on the museum's operations. But Fitzpatrick isn't worried: "I like to do things I don't already know how to do."

Penny Pritzker, chair of the MCA's board of trustees, says the search committee looked at about 30 candidates, but apparently no one seemed right for the job--or wanted it. As one curator after another left the museum and funding began to drop, finding a new director became critical. "A museum needs leadership, and it can't go for long without it," says Pritzker. As soon as Fitzpatrick threw his hat into the ring, the hiring process moved remarkably fast: "Once we discovered the kind of person we were looking for, we wasted no time going after him." Pritzker spent several days in New York watching Fitzpatrick at work; he was, she decided, a man with an "entrepreneurial nature who does not let grass grow under his feet."

A native of Toronto, Fitzpatrick comes to the MCA with a varied resume, and despite his lack of museum experience the trustees were impressed by his broad exposure to the arts. He's been an assistant professor of French at the University of Maine at Orono, dean of students at Johns Hopkins University, and a member of the Baltimore city council. In 1975 he became president of the California Institute of the Arts, a university devoted to the visual and performing arts; there he began to display his managerial skills, turning around a troubled, nearly bankrupt institution. Fitzpatrick says he did this in part by inviting Hollywood moguls like Michael Eisner and Barry Diller to join the school's board of trustees. While presiding over CalArts, Fitzpatrick also directed the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, a massive ten-week event that included 424 performances and exhibits by artists from around the world. With no experience coordinating such a mammoth affair, Fitzpatrick says he simply called up everyone he knew in the arts and asked what should be part of the event. When certain artists and performers were mentioned again and again, he went after them.

In 1987 Fitzpatrick made his strangest career move. Disney chairman Michael Eisner, impressed by Fitzpatrick's achievements at CalArts, appointed him president and CEO of EuroDisney, the theme park and resort just outside Paris. Fitzpatrick says he relished the opportunity to work with such creative people. "I also thrive in a foreign culture," he adds. Yet when it opened in 1992, EuroDisney became one of the biggest debacles in Disney's history. Failing to take into account a number of European cultural differences and plagued by France's rapidly rising unemployment, the park was awash in red ink from the day it opened. Fitzpatrick is quick to distance himself from the big mistakes at EuroDisney (now called Disneyland Paris), saying he inherited a master plan when he came on board. "I tried to talk to Michael about serving wine and beer," he explains, "but it wasn't a concern at the time." Fitzpatrick left EuroDisney in 1993 and started a consulting business in France before joining Columbia in 1995.

Now Fitzpatrick faces another turnaround job at the MCA. He says he has only a passing familiarity with Chicago, but after being approached for the director's job he immediately went through all the press clippings he could find about the recent turmoil. What he read and subsequently heard from trustees and others evidently did not dissuade him. Fitzpatrick is reluctant to discuss his vision for the MCA before he settles into the job, but he does believe that museums and other cultural institutions can afford to "loosen up a bit" without necessarily appealing to the lowest common denominator: "I don't think we in the culture business need to be so self-righteous." One of his priorities will be rebuilding the curatorial staff, and as in the past, he will look to his wide range of contacts for input.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert Fitzpatrick photo by James Isberner.

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