Museum With a Mission/Lookingglass Members Go West/Metcalf Bound for Broadway | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Museum With a Mission/Lookingglass Members Go West/Metcalf Bound for Broadway

What will it take to attract more African Americans to the Art Institute? Julia Perkins and Ronne Hartfield are working on it.


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Museum With a Mission

The Art Institute of Chicago has begun reaching out to the city's African American community. According to rough estimates gleaned from internal research, only about 8 percent of the museum's total annual attendance of 1.3 million comes from the African American community--and only about 4 percent of its approximately 96,000 members. To boost those numbers, it recently hired Julia Perkins as assistant director for community programs. Perkins, whose varied job background includes work as a labor relations negotiator and more recently as a consultant to the Chicago Historical Society, will work on what is being called the Refocus/Resources Initiative. Other team staffers include museum deputy director Teri J. Edelstein, president James N. Wood, executive director of museum education Ronne Hartfield, and vice president for development Christine O'Neill.

The Art Institute undertakes this audience-broadening mission with the help of a substantial chunk of change--$1.28 million to be exact--from the New York-based Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, a philanthropic organization known for awarding unusually large grants for specific goals. Reader's Digest Fund program director Holly Sidford says, "We did some research in the museum field, and it became clear fine arts museums needed help in broadening and developing their audiences." For the third straight year, the fund invited 20 institutions to apply for grants in this area. The Art Institute grant, which will be spread out over five and a half years, was one of five awarded this year to museums of varying sizes nationwide. Sidford says the museums were selected primarily on the basis of their perceived commitment to broadening their audiences. The fund has awarded audience accessibility grants totaling $22 million to date.

Since the Art Institute received its grant earlier this year, the Refocus/Resources Initiative has been mapping out its strategy, which includes setting up a board of advisers from the city's African American community and educating the museum staff about the project and its goals. Explains Hartfield: "We have to work with the staff to help them understand why some people don't automatically love the museum, and what we have here, the way they may love it." The team also intends to take a fresh look at how the Art Institute's holdings might relate to the black experience. Says Hartfield: "To date the Art Institute exhibitions of greatest interest to African Americans have all been traveling exhibitions." Since the Reader's Digest grant specifically states that any exhibition designed to reach the African American community must be based on the museum's permanent collections, the game plan now calls for the museum to present eight such exhibitions over the next four seasons. One exhibit on the drawing board, tentatively called "Movement and Memory," would among other things examine the migration of African Americans from the south to the north. The eight exhibitions will be supplemented by a range of tours, discussions, lectures, related performing and visual arts events, and community-based festivals.

Will all of this effort and all these dollars bring more African Americans to the Art Institute? Amina Dickerson is vice president of education and public programs at the Chicago Historical Society, where she worked with Perkins on an African American outreach project. She appreciates the Art Institute's Refocus/Resources Initiative, but notes that in order for it to be successful, it'll have to be sustained. Carl Perrin, acting president of the DuSable Museum of African American History, applauds the effort, but stops short of suggesting it will yield significant results. Perrin says his own informal research suggests the city's black community has a "neutral-to-favorable" opinion of the Art Institute. Adds Perrin: "I think they [African Americans] view the Art Institute as something that creates a favorable perception of the city." Sidford at the Reader's Digest Fund already has seen some favorable results from at least one accessibility grant recipient: at the Indianapolis Museum of Art efforts to draw in more of that city's middle-class black community are paying off. And she says the fund will closely monitor progress at the Art Institute and the other institutions awarded grants. "We intend to do audience surveys to see what strategies are working and in what kind of context."

Lookingglass Members Go West

The westward migration continues, this time at the talented Lookingglass Theatre Company. The company's producing director, Kate Churchill, recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film production. Ensemble member David Schwimmer is also in LA, where he's a regular on the new NBC series Friends. Another ensemble member, Temple Williams, spends large amounts of time on the west coast working in film. Lookingglass's newly elected artistic director, Laura Eason, concedes that ensemble members have a hard time resisting Hollywood's allure, but says it would take "a lot" to break apart the Lookingglass family. Adds Eason: "It's tempting out there because there is a lot of money in film work and not so much in the theater." Schwimmer is due back in town next spring to shoot a film he's written called Strange to the City, about a young conformist who discovers his individuality. Schwimmer will use the money he earned from the TV series to make the movie with Lookingglass ensemble members.

Metcalf Bound for Broadway

Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member Laurie Metcalf, who long ago moved westward for her role on Roseanne, will have to pack up and move again to star in a Broadway production of Alex Gersten's play My Thing of Love, directed by Michael Maggio and now slated to open in April 1995. The play, a tragicomedy about the breakdown of a marriage, had its world premiere at Steppenwolf in the summer of 1992 and was almost immediately picked up by New York producers Barry and Fran Weissler for a possible Broadway mounting. Initially Metcalf could not commit to a Broadway run, and the producers tried without luck to find a suitable replacement. Though Metcalf is now back on board, Steppenwolf will have no financial commitment or producing role in the Broadway venture.

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

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