‘Museums Are Contested Sites’: The Art Institute of Chicago’s James Rondeau on Why He Finds the Current Moment So Electrifying

The director of the Art Institute of Chicago explains the thinking behind the museum's postponement of a show of Mimbres pottery.

Art Institute of Chicago director James Rondeau. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Situated in the heart of Chicago’s loop, flanked by Millennium Park and overlooking Lake Michigan, the Art Institute of Chicago might not seem a likely epicenter for an earthquake. Built in the heady early days of the city—the museum celebrated its 125th anniversary last year—the Art Institute has both the monumental solidity of a great temple and the sprawl of a college campus. But right now there are rumblings that threaten to shift the very foundational pillars it rests upon, just as there are in every other historical museum across the United States at a time when the authority of institutions is being called into question by people—once marginalized, now increasingly empowered—who say the narratives they represent no longer apply.

It’s a turbulent moment that James Rondeau, the director and president of the Art Institute, seems to relish. A two-decade veteran of the museum, Rondeau has spent the majority of his career helping to shape the grand European-style institution as it evolved into a new era defined by the internet, contemporary art, diversity, and, in the Trump era, political polarization. Recently, when faced by a controversy at his museum over a show involving objects from Native American grave sites, he took it as an opportunity to hash out a new set of best practices in real time—and, as he said, seize the “forefront” of this thinking in the field.

To find out more about Rondeau’s energetic approach to confronting the challenges facing museums today, artnet News’s Andrew Goldstein sat down with the director to talk about that recent controversy, where he takes his intellectual inspiration from, and how art institutions need to change in order to remain relevant and survive the earthquakes underfoot. Here is the first part of a two-part interview.

The Art Institute of Chicago's Michigan Avenue Entrance. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue Entrance. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

You’ve been director of the Art Institute of Chicago for some three and a half years, but you’ve actually been at the museum for 21 years. What first brought you there? 

I was a 25-year-old assistant curator in Hartford when I was hired by the Art Institute to be an associate curator of contemporary art. I don’t think I was on anyone’s radar at the time, but it was a moment in the early-mid ‘90s at the Art Institute when the pendulum that occasionally swings to a very forward-looking, present-tense relationship to art had really swung back. Contemporary art was endlessly being displaced. Madeleine Grynsztejn [director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art since 2008] had been there for a number of years and did really important work, but it became increasingly hard for her to do what she wanted to achieve, and so she left with some frustration.

So, the rap on the job was: this is not an institution focused on contemporary. As a result, I think I was the 16th person offered the job. It was just like, “Find some kid in Hartford—he’ll do it.” So I got quite lucky. I started on April 1, 1998, and learned that they had not made one hire, but actually two, in searches that were blind to each other. They didn’t inform us, but we shared an office and started on the same day. My officemate was Okwui Enwezor.

No way.

So, Okwui—my dear friend, who we lost this year—and I shared an office for three years, though he was mostly on the road. It was this extraordinary moment when clearly the feeling was that no one was paying attention to Modern and contemporary, every other candidate had run for the exit, and they took a bet on these two young curators. It was one of the great chapters of my life.

I went to spend the day with Okwui in Munich just less than a week before he died, and I told him—which is completely the truth—that I’m still working on executing the conversations and ideas and values that we brainstormed together in 1998.

The curator Okwui Enwezor in 2002. (Photo by Sabine Simon/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The curator Okwui Enwezor in 2002. (Photo by Sabine Simon/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Today, it’s almost hard to imagine an era when it was a challenge to get a museum to take contemporary art seriously, considering how hegemonic it has become within the art landscape. How else have your challenges evolved over the two decades you’ve been at the Art Institute? What would you say they are today?

We’ve seen the pendulum swing back hard, not just in our museum, but in the industry. Many of our most active and generous trustees are focused on collecting Modern and contemporary for themselves. It’s become the epicenter. So I think the challenge for us is to maintain a balance of power and resources throughout the institution.

Unlike many of my peers, I don’t actually embrace the word “encyclopedic” when it comes to our museum. I feel that the term isn’t scrutinized enough. We’re not actually encyclopedic in our collections. We’re broad in general, and deep and varied. I mean, even the Met—although they come closer in their depth than Chicago—is non-encyclopedic. And so I worry about the transparency and the honesty around that. Clearly, it suggests a kind of universality that we as museums don’t actually deliver.

An encyclopedia implies a kind of checking off of cultures and chronologies but, even more importantly to me, it implies a closed set—it’s bracketed. At the Art Institute, we would rather think of ourselves in a formulation that instead offers an ellipsis, suggesting an ongoing investigation.

But leaving that term behind, I think the challenge for the museum is making sure that the chronologies and geographies that we focus on are balanced. It’s incredibly hard to identify talent—particularly young or mid-career talent—across lots and lots of disciplines. Just try to find someone to talk about 16th-century English silver. Try to find young tapestry folks. We’ve seen the educational pool in art history also tilt towards Modern and contemporary, and so trying to attract and retain talent in other areas is a real challenge.

What you’re saying reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s essay “What Is a Classic?” which described how important new works of art retroactively change the canon as they are added, readjusting the whole narrative of artistic progress in order to accommodate them. This is something that we’re seeing happen a lot these days, especially with regard to the idea that a museum today is expected to accurately reflect a multitude of different perspectives—a radical change from before, when the museum was expected to be the ultimate authority of a single definitive narrative. Recently, this spring, the Art Institute was experienced a controversy over a show of Native American Mimbres pottery, which was made a millennium ago in what is now New Mexico. Can you explain what happened there?

Mimbres is a culture that thrived in what is now North Central New Mexico, a southwestern area of the present-day United States. It’s a culture that disappeared between 1130 and 1150, so it’s essentially a “lost culture,” but I put quotes around that term because it is a somewhat problematic to say “lost.” What’s known is that the Mimbres culture vanishes almost 400 years pre-contact, so their disappearance is not a colonial story connected to the genocide of the indigenous populations on this continent. As for their ceramics, they are interesting in terms of material from the ancient world because they’re both everyday objects and burial objects. As an individual of the Mimbres people, you would have a set of bowls that you used throughout your life for very mundane reasons—for eating and storage and other things—and one or two would follow you into the grave.

At the Art Institute, we’ve been engaged with this material for almost 30 years. Our former head of the ancient Americas department, Richard Townsend, a distinguished, legendary figure in our museum, started the project and then retired after a nearly 40-year run. This material has also been on continuous view in our collection galleries for 20-plus years. In the conversation that has been taking place this year it sometimes sounds as if this is our first time circling around Mimbres materials. It’s not.

Bowl with Mirror Pattern of Birds Framed by Geometric Motifs. A.D. 950/1150. Mimbres branch of the Mogollon. New Mexico, United States. Courtesy of the Art Institute.

Bowl with Mirror Pattern of Birds Framed by Geometric Motifs. A.D. 950/1150. Mimbres branch of the Mogollon. New Mexico, United States. Courtesy of the Art Institute.

So, since we didn’t have in-house pre-Colombian expertise at that moment when we were organizing the show, we embarked on a collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum. We were working on it together for about three years. One of the mistakes that we made was not following the very, very consistent model that Richard Townsend followed during his tenure, which is to always bring in indigenous voices and stakeholders at the beginning of a project. It didn’t happen in this case, and that’s because we had accepted the received wisdom that there is no living constituency for the Mimbres people. Operating under that assumption was our original mistake here, because, of course, there are indigenous populations who very much feel that they are spiritual heirs to the achievements of the Mimbres.

Long story less-long is that when we did convene an assembly of indigenous scholars, community organizers, and activists at the beginning of December last year, we heard criticism that the project was engaging with materials used in burial practices without aligned indigenous collaboration. That’s when Princeton, which took the criticism to heart immediately, dropped out.

After convening the assembly, I became convinced that we as an institution, with our expertise and authority, could create an exhibition that would show we understand the complexities of the material. We understand that, for some, the presentation of this material is a sacred violation. We understand the moral and ethical complications of unsupervised excavation. But what I learned in the process is that, in this instance and possibly in other instances, one voice—our voice—saying that is insufficient.

There need to be multiple voices channeling that learning, from multiple stakeholders who have a cultural authority in this conversation. And I think that’s somewhat new, but it felt really good to stand up and say, “We know an awful lot, we have a great deal of expertise, we have a great deal of authority, but in this case it’s insufficient. We actually don’t know enough, and we need to keep learning and we need partners in that learning.” That felt like a fantastic thing to be able to lead with.

A frieze of artist names circles the exterior of the Art Institute. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A frieze of artist names circles the exterior of the Art Institute. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

As the director of the Art Institute, which just turned 125 last year, you must be exceptionally alive to the tectonic shifts impacting the very foundations of American museums today. The Art Institute website’s “about” section notes that the building occupies land that was originally home to the Council of Three Fires, a Native American community. At the same time, the museum’s entablature is ringed with the names of dozens of white male artists—and 9th-century Japanese artist, Kose Kanaoka—that are literally etched in stone. Whole notions of what constitute national greatness are changing to accommodate different perspectives. How can you do the work of bringing art history meaningfully forward into a more inclusive era?

I can even do you one better on terms of the problematic legacy of that building—it was originally dedicated in honor of Christopher Columbus. We no longer have Christopher Columbus there on the plaque, but instead we have land recognition for the indigenous populations that were there.

So you see how those narratives are continually evolving. That aspirational frieze was completely appropriate in its time, and is no longer appropriate now. I talk a lot about that frieze, and I talk about a work that we own in the collection, which is a self-portrait that Félix González-Torres made in the form of a frieze, with a mix of public and private associative phrases and dates that run along the top of a wall in one of our galleries. But Félix stipulated that the only way to own the work was that it had to continually change, so things are constantly being added, with other things dropped out. It’s an actual demonstration of how identity is shaped, but also how history is written. It’s continual revisionism.

We are constantly trying out exercises in self-definition. I often joke with our senior staff that we need to spend a long time just talking to ourselves about what we’re trying to lay out in messages and goals and priorities before we can actually deliver a message that’s public-facing. This idea that you’re talking to yourself can be a criticism, like preaching to the choir, but I spend a lot of time talking to the choir because that choir needs to sing in unison, or we need to understand when that choir needs to be multi-vocal and bring in 30 perspectives.

The Art Institute of Chicago's newly reinstalled Gallery of African Art. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago’s newly reinstalled Gallery of African Art. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Speaking of different perspectives, there seems to be a mounting expectation these days for a curator in a field of art with ethnographic elements—like Native American pottery, African art, or Latinx art, for instance—to not only have expertise in the subject but also to personally reflect the history they are studying. Last year, for instance, the Brooklyn Museum became embroiled in controversy for hiring a white American curator of African art. How important is it for a curator’s subject matter and personal identity to overlap, and how does one get to that place given the current roster of specialists who are available to hire, where many non-white backgrounds in particular areas are distinctly underrepresented?

I don’t believe in centralizing a kind of matrix between racial, ethnic, gender identity, and curatorial portfolio. In fact, the individual who will lead this next iteration of our Mimbres engagement [as we work to restart the project], Dr. Andrew Hamilton from Princeton, happens to be a Caucasian male. But it is under his agency and his intellectual armature that we can bring in other indigenous voices. It’s about understanding that individual as a catalyst for what the learning or the dialogue needs to be, rather than as a self-contained end point based on their identity vis-à-vis the collection or the exhibition.

What’s also quite energizing for us about this Mimbres conversation is that it makes it clear that every single day, in every decision, that museums are contested sites. That actually helps ensure our relevance. As a journalist, you know that museums today are under a kind of a scrutiny unlike anything we’ve seen before, and this Mimbres conversation has really served to show how quickly and how profoundly the landscape is shifting. LACMA did a large Mimbres exhibition for almost an eight-month run in 2018. No reaction.

We even went back deep on social media to check if there had been any communities organizing digitally. Zero. The Princeton Art Museum, which dropped out of the project toward the end of 2018, had invested nearly a million dollars in acquisitions of that same material in that same calendar year. So it’s not like we entered into a conversation with established best practices that we somehow didn’t heed. This was a moment where you could say best practices were changing by the day, week, month.

How can we not only uphold best practices but actually become leaders in defining the next iteration of those practices? That’s something we are talking about across the board, not just with ancient American ceramics. So the postponement represents our awareness of the extraordinary learning curve, where as a museum we had to say, “We know a lot; we don’t know enough.” To me that’s an extremely powerful thing to be able to say, because I’ve never heard a museum say it before.

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