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Now You See Them, Now You Don't

Is the Art Institute renting out its treasures?

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The recent announcement that the Art Institute will pack up 92 impressionist works—the core of its flagship collection—and send them off for an extended sojourn in Texas next year arrived like a stealth bomb. In a press release issued November 2, the Art Institute explained that this "unprecedented loan" to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth is related to its own renovation: the impressionist galleries will be closed for sprucing up before the grand opening of the modern wing in 2009. The list of works that'll be hitting the road is astounding, including 5 by van Gogh, 6 by Degas, 7 each by Cezanne and Manet, 12 by Renoir, and 26 by Monet. The dailies dutifully reported the news as if there weren't a giant, surreal "huh?" hanging over it and as if there were no money changing hands, leaving readers to wonder, mouths agape: Why the impressionists? Why so many? Why so long? Why Texas?

Three days later, Washington-based national arts reporter Tyler Green slapped a For Rent sign on a copy of Caillebotte's iconic Paris Street; Rainy Day and mounted the image at the head of his well-read artsjournal.com blog, Modern Art Notes. Green blasted the Art Institute for masking a rental as a loan and for having the gall to present it as "an historic occasion for the Art Institute." This is "stretching the museum's credibility," he wrote, claiming that even Art Institute director James Cuno "pretty much held his nose when discussing the rental" by saying it'll produce "scholarly residue" in the form of a catalog. Suggesting T-shirts emblazoned with "Chicago pimps out Caillebotte," Green described the "loan" as the "re-monetization of art held . . . in a public trust" and called for the Art Institute to come clean on the nature and terms of the transaction.

In a particularly nasty jab, Green accused Cuno of doing something very much like a deal Cuno had criticized a couple years ago, when the Boston Museum of Fine Arts rented paintings to a gallery in Las Vegas's Bellagio resort. "Yes, Jim Cuno, that's right," Green wrote. "You and [BMFA director] Malcolm Rogers now have something in common. How's it feel?"

Green is weirdly off target on that one: the Boston works went to a commercial gallery while the Kimbell is a nonprofit museum known for its fine 350-piece collection and Louis Kahn building, widely considered one of the best places in the world to view art. Opened 35 years ago, the Kimbell started as home to the private collection of Texas businessman Kay Kimbell (an eighth-grade dropout who owned 70 companies when he died in 1964) and his wife, Velma. The childless couple met up with a New York art dealer in the 1930s, established the Kimbell Art Foundation soon after, and spent the rest of their lives buying the best historic pieces they could find, especially 18th- and 19th-century British portraits and European paintings. Kahn was hired to design the museum, which looks, from the outside, like a connected series of concrete Quonset huts. Inside, masterfully diffused light enters unobstructed space through vaulted ceilings, creating what Kimbell acting director Malcolm Warner says is an ideal environment for Impressionist work.

The Kimbell has had its share of notoriety. In 2000 it was revealed that the museum's board had paid two of its members—the founder's niece and her husband—a couple million dollars for what would have been generally considered volunteer services. A few years before that the museum hatched a plan to graft an addition to the Kahn building, a concept so reviled by the world's leading architects that it never happened. But now, like the Art Institute, the Kimbell has hired Renzo Piano to design an expansion, this time a separate building on the museum's grounds. And there are other overlaps between the two institutions, including former and current officials; Warner, for example, spent several years at the Art Institute in the late 1980s as a researcher. He says the impressionists' visit was devised about a year ago by Cuno and (then) Kimbell director Timothy Potts. Cuno says the idea, broached by Potts, seemed like a good way to keep the art on view when it would otherwise have to be stored. When the Art Institute's renovation is done and the goodies reinstalled, he adds, viewers will have a "better sense of the [collections'] narrative." The impressionist galleries, which will be closed from May to late December (the Texas show will be up June 29 through November 2), will "conclude the chronological sweep to the end of the 19th century, from which you'll launch into the modern wing."

Cuno says the Kimbell will cover packing, shipping, and insurance costs and will pay a loan fee, which he declined to specify. (A November 2 New York Times story speculated that it might be $2 million.) And on this point, Green sounds a little less rabid. Even after its huge hedge fund losses a few years back, the Art Institute is discretion personified when it comes to finances. There may be legal or tax reasons for calling the Kimbell deal a loan with a fee, but it's hard to see why that fee shouldn't be made public. Cuno says that "the reason we don't talk about money in these regards is that it distracts people from the matter at hand, which is to engage with works of art." But Chicagoans and Chicago visitors won't be able to engage with these works for eight months. The matter at hand is why so many of our treasures are trucking down to Texas. What's the risk of damage to them? Why couldn't they have been temporarily hung in other galleries here? And, if they had to be moved, did the Art Institute cut the wisest and best deal? Last week a single Gauguin sold for $35 million at auction. There's no way to keep the public from knowing that, and it's not likely to lessen interest in Chicago's impressionists when they open in Fort Worth.

Miscellany

Department of Life Imitating Art: About Face Theatre founder Eric Rosen announced last week that he's leaving after a dozen years to become artistic director at Kansas City Repertory. His Wedding Play, which he both penned and directs, now in production at Steppenwolf, ends with the departure of its writer-director protagonist. . . . A Halloween-night burglar is still at large after absconding with the Edna costume from Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit at the Royal George. Police are looking for a person of size in a swirly pink-and-purple print with feather cuffs. v

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