In recent years the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art has hosted an excellent survey of Persian paintings, a great show of early works by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, and a groundbreaking exhibit of contemporary "post-pop" abstract paintings. Over the last 23 years Chicago would have missed dozens of equally wonderful exhibits, were it not for this small institution located on the campus of the University of Chicago.
Now, with the university's blessing, the Smart is embarking on an ambitious plan to attract visitors beyond the scholars and students who make up the bulk of its patrons. Last year the museum brought in the well-known corporate consulting firm of McKinsey and Company to help develop a ten-year expansion plan. After considering the firm's report, the museum has resolved to step up its fund-raising efforts and aggressively market itself to the larger community. It also hopes to strengthen its ties to the university.
The museum opened in 1974 with a $1 million bequest from the Smart Family Foundation; it was named after onetime Hyde Park residents David and Alfred Smart, who founded Esquire magazine here in 1931. The University of Chicago kicks in only about a quarter of the annual operating budget, and the museum doesn't charge admission, so in recent years the Smart has refocused its fund-raising efforts. The museum's advisory board used to consist primarily of faculty and other university representatives, but now about two-thirds of the board members are civic leaders with access to funding. Two years ago the Smart established the Joseph R. Shapiro Award to honor distinguished local art collectors; the gala dinner has become a major revenue source. And museum director Kimerly Rorschach says her new assistant director, Brian Ferriso, will devote a large portion of his time to development.
The McKinsey report emphasized that special exhibits attract visitors, and Rorschach says she's about to launch a $1 million capital campaign to increase and reconfigure the gallery space. In the past the Smart has mounted exhibits in conjunction with the Arts Club of Chicago, and advisory board chairman Richard Gray says he'd like to see the museum do more joint programming with downtown institutions.
Without a doubt the most delicate issue is the museum's relationship with its parent institution. The report notes that the University of Chicago "lacks a focus for the arts....While there are many activities and programs available, there is almost no concerted effort to publicize or market them, or to provide clear incentives for visitors from outside the university community to make a visit to campus." The report proposes the construction of a new university arts center that would unite the Smart with other organizations like the Court Theatre, the Film Studies Center, and the Renaissance Society. But with a price tag of $83 million, the new center seems a long way off. For now, Rorschach hopes the Smart Museum will succeed by increasing its audience and enhancing its educational programs. "The Smart may be small, but it has lots of potential."
It Takes the Village
The small Village North movie theater in Rogers Park plans to compete with the city's art houses in the coming months. Owner Ron Rooding says he hopes to mix up his regular programming of second-run movies with local premieres of first-run independent films. This weekend he'll open a weeklong run of Doug Wolens's documentary Weed, about the annual Cannabis Cup & Hemp Expo in Amsterdam. The film was screened here last fall during the Chicago Underground Film Festival, but the Village North date will be its first--and probably only--full booking in town. Beginning October 31 Rooding will present The Long Way Home, Mark Jonathan Harris's film about the founding of Israel, and starting November 21 he'll screen Love's Debris, the Werner Schroeter film about opera singers that was warmly received at the Chicago International Film Festival earlier this month.
Most theaters post positive reviews in their lobbies, but Pegasus Players dares to be different. Executive director Arlene Crewdson--reacting to the negative notices received for Genesis, a one-man staging of the first book of the Bible--has apparently decided to turn bad press into an asset. She's hanging up the critical pans and urging audience members to write responses to the reviews.
While the Tribune's Richard Christiansen found the play mildly entertaining, several critics slammed Genesis for its preachiness and Old Testament sexism, among other problems. Jonathan Abarbanel, who reviewed the play in the Sun-Times, objected to writer Buzz McLaughlin's "thunder and brimstone," claiming his "literal interpretations" were sending a sectarian message. "The same passages are used by the religious right against gays and lesbians," he says. In his review, Abarbanel noted that Christian comic books had been placed on the seats and in the bathrooms; later he was told these pamphlets were actually parodies distributed by a "pagan organization" without the theater's knowledge (the pamphleteers reportedly demanded a correction from the Sun-Times). Though Abarbanel generally liked Max McLean's performance, the Reader's Albert Williams wrote, "McLean's hammy deliberateness recalls Bela Lugosi in an Ed Wood movie."
Considering that the show earned a little positive press, some have wondered why Crewdson wants to accentuate the negative. Crewdson says she was surprised by the "controversy" generated by the play, which had already enjoyed a brief but successful run in New York City. She's posted both negative and positive reviews along with audience comments because, she says, "Theater should stimulate discussion--it's about walking in another person's shoes." This Sunday at 5 PM, after the closing performance of Genesis, Pegasus and the show's Christian coproducer, Multimedia Ministries, will host a discussion called "Pulpit or Proscenium: Can the Arts Bring Us Together?" Abarbanel was invited to be a panelist: "I'm not going to attack [the play], but I will disagree with its perspective."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kimerly Rorschach photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.