By Elliot J. Reichert
Last week, James Rondeau became the twelfth president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago after eighteen years with the museum. Formerly the chair and curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rondeau sat down with Newcity at the end of his first day as director to share his vision for leading the museum. Diversity, data, digital access and building expansion were among the topics we discussed.
It’s your first day at the director’s desk, but you’ve been with the Art Institute for eighteen years. Given your long tenure with the museum, you must have a good sense of how the institution operates. Considering that, do you already have a sense what your immediate priorities will be?
It’s in a large part about transitioning from a fairly specialized area of interest, which was being in charge of modern and contemporary art, and expanding that to take on the full scope of the encyclopedic mission. It’s moving from being curatorially specific to being curatorially general, and moving from a role of actually executing curatorial projects to one of supporting other’s projects. In this transition, I am very mindful of what the mandate is.
I feel very lucky that in eighteen years I’ve had the opportunity to work for three different directors: James Wood, James Cuno and Douglas Druick. I’ve really seen how different people do it differently. I’ve almost been able to apprentice under three very different approaches and I think I’ve been able over the years to synthesize in my mind what those approaches entail. I have also seen how expectations in the local community, the national community, the international community have changed over almost two decades since I’ve been at this museum. All this has informed my perspective. So, it’s day one, but I feel like there is an extraordinary continuity from what I’ve been learning and seeing here all these years to what I start to do today.
You mentioned the transition from a specific area of research, which is modern and contemporary art, to overseeing this massive, encyclopedic museum which has a duty to represent a wide range of history and geography. How are you imagining that transition?
I have a perspective that I’ve gained as a museum professional over the years, but I also have a road map. We have a really meaningful long-range plan—that we’ve been working on as a staff across the full spectrum of the museum and with the trustees to formulate—where we think we need to be going in the next five to ten years. Those priorities have been really clear: a global approach to modern and contemporary art and a separate but overlapping commitment to Asian art from antiquity to the present. Those goals give me some guidelines that I can use to set priorities, but we do not prioritize those areas at the exclusion of any others. We hope that as we grow, we are going to have commensurate growth across every area of the institution. I’m beginning the process today to meet with every single department head, most of whom I know already in a different context, to try to learn what they’re doing in detail and learn how I can support what they’re doing. That’s the process that I’m beginning. It’s really a listening and learning tour for the first few months. I’m not going to take decisive action. We are not an institution in need of fixing. The vessel is not broken, there is no repair necessary, so I’m really just here in these first weeks and months to learn what my colleagues are doing and to understand how best I can implement the mandate that has been put in front of us.
What kinds of questions are you asking your team right now? What are the kinds of things you feel you need to know?
The typical questions are “What’s working?” and “What’s not working?” What is it that you want to be doing that you are not able to be doing? Where are you using resources wisely, and where are resources not available to you? Basic questions about staffing and functions, but really about aspirations. How can we get the best possible exhibitions, acquisitions and programming out of this very talented staff? My job becomes one of facilitator with the big picture of that encyclopedic view and with priorities in mind. Resources are obviously finite, so it’s important to understand the big picture, but we need to understand what our immediate short-term goals are as well.
How do you see the Art Institute’s relationship with the City of Chicago and with the other important cultural institutions here?
First and foremost, I regard the museum as a civic enterprise. The identity of the city of Chicago and the identity of this museum are inextricably interwoven. We are a private organization with a mission of public service. We are a civic institution, so I see our connection to the history of Chicago, Chicago’s present and Chicago’s future, as one and the same. Our fortunes and our excellence are tied to the excellence of our city. They always have been and they always will be. This is not a museum that could be transplanted to any other context. We are of Chicago, in Chicago, both literally and figuratively. It’s important to understand that the history of the city is in our DNA. We were founded at the moment of the Columbian Exposition, and from that moment forward, everything about how this city grows corresponds exactly to how we grow. This is our home and we are so proud to be so immediately and readily identified with this city. When people who live here think about what their city is about, they think of us, and when people visit here who are not from here they think of us, and we feel that deeply.
In terms of our colleagues in the city, we are as invested in their success as much as we are invested in our own. As much as we are committed to Chicago, we want Chicago to be what it is; one of the world’s greatest cities. As one of the world’s greatest cities—a cosmopolitan, culturally rich and diverse metropolis—we require thriving cultural institutions across the full spectrum. So we’re not only invested in the success of the visual arts at places such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the ethnographic material at the Field Museum. We also care deeply about our collaborations with the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony and the Shedd Aquarium and with dance. We are operating programmatically in a way that touches almost every major cultural institution in this city. They are our partners, so we firmly believe it’s not a matter of competition, it’s a matter of mutual reinforcement. Civically, Chicago feels very differently to me than other major American cities, which are a little bit more siloed or a little bit more competitive. There is a great feeling of mutual reinforcement and everyone believing that success is shared. We need this to be a thriving, diverse culturally rich metropolis, and it is. We just want to keep improving that.
Museums are among the many institutions that are becoming increasingly responsive to audience preferences as social media feedback and consumer reviews like Yelp and TripAdvisor become more prevalent. Considering this new information, how will you address audience needs without straying from the mission?
Like every other major cultural institution in the country, if not also in a broader international context, we are increasingly audience-driven and trying to understand the needs of our audience, both in terms of our existing audience and also how we grow and address changing needs of new audiences. We’re looking at our understanding of who we’ve been and what our traditional audiences expect of us, and we’re looking at how we grow both a broader and more diverse set of audiences and how those needs, expectations and modes of engagement evolve.
Digital access, for example, is a huge arena. We’ve made leaps and bounds in the past five years in terms of how we interface collections, exhibitions and programming on a digital platform. This is something brand new and this is something that people increasingly expect and require. So, both in terms of access but also in terms of engagement we’re changing the ways in which we think about how people learn, how people look at objects, how people conduct their visit, how they structure their visit, how they get information in advance of their visit, how they navigate the building. We’ve never been more sensitive to way-finding than we are at this moment. We have an increasingly complex campus. For instance, we understand that the majority of people who visit the third floor of the Modern Wing actually enter at Michigan Avenue. So we can take data like that to understand how we can address way-finding.
Sometimes the most obvious changes are the nose in front of your face. We were looking at traffic from the entrance on Monroe Street of the Modern Wing to access the galleries on both the second and third floor. When you enter Griffin Court on your left-hand side are two elevators; one a passenger elevator, the second is a closed cargo freight elevator. It took us about four years before we realized that we labeled the freight elevator, which is not available for visitors, and we didn’t label the passenger elevator. Sometimes you have to grow into a space. This idea of audience needs permeates how we think about everything: learning, labels, digital engagement, way-finding, even how we address publications. Increasingly, all our scholarly publications are online. We are not just publishing printed books anymore. Some of our most serious and in-depth scholarly research over the last five years is manifested in online catalogs. All of these notions are changing, and it is our challenge to keep up with these changing expectations.
What role does data collection specifically play in responding to audience needs?
Data collection is something we are seriously investing in. It’s an initiative that is perhaps four years old here, but we have now a significant investment in data collection and strategic implementation. It’s not only about collecting data, but analyzing data and trying to put that data into practice within the museum. It’s everything from way-finding to membership retention to areas of particular interest that one expresses in a visit and how people relate to programing. The model used to be that we put a picture on the wall and you come and look at it. It was very one-direction: we have an offering and you come and see. And now, the model is much more of a constant exchange, a constant interface back and forth of us addressing what we can offer, addressing how you use what we offer, and adjusting in some cases what we want to do, how we present, how things are being utilized. It’s a multi-directional, dynamic exchange, and data and the analysis of data, which is a relatively new practice for non-profit arts, has been at the core of how we’re understanding. We are really putting metrics behind how we’re making decisions. When we want to redefine way-finding, we put metrics behind it. We understand how many people are using the staircase versus the elevator. We don’t just change the sign because we have some kind of inchoate sense that the graphics don’t look right. We’re increasingly data-driven.
How does that responsive approach affect the presentation of the art and the scholarship of art history?
The core of our mission of scholarship, interpretation, presentation is unchanging, but there are ways in which we nuance the presentation of information by understanding how visitors relate and what visitors expect. We learned, for example, that timelines have proved particularly accessible and popular, so we’ve invested more in timelines. We’ve learned that many visitors like to read, see or hear the voice of a living artist when the work of art is made by a contemporary artist. We increasingly incorporate the voice of the artist both in audio tours and printed material. It’s not skewing the values or the ultimate quality of what we do, but it’s a question of emphasis and a question of nuance of how we present. And that again is a dynamic, ongoing exchange. We used to have a set of expectations that were fixed, so as we arrive at new models and new paradigms, we don’t actually think that those now are fixed ones. We understand the whole approach to be one that is fundamentally elastic and dynamic, and that’s new.
Considering the mandate that cultural institutions represent all people, how are you thinking about diversity at the Art Institute? This is a conversation that a lot of cultural non-profits are having right now.
I am incredibly proud of where we are at the moment in modern and contemporary, for example. If you look at the second floor of the Modern Wing, it’s more than one-third women artists. I can tell you that we have artists on view from Sudan, China, Japan, Korea, Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa. We have an entire room devoted to Japanese Gutai work at the present. We have the great master of the Khartoum School hanging with Burri and Dubuffet. We have Western European art hanging with Zao Wou-Ki. The diversity of collections you can see now just in the Modern and Contemporary is, I would argue, far greater than you’ll see at any art museum in the United States at the moment. We’ve made incredible progress in the last five years in this regard. We’re beginning to do it in other areas. Photography has made unbelievable, massive efforts with gender parity, but also with a focus on contemporary Asia, particularly Japan.
And we’re seeing it in other kinds of new narratives. I met with my colleague today who runs the department of American Art, which begins its story around the year 1650. She’s increasingly looking at a story of American art that pluralizes America to the Americas. She’s integrating Latin America and Canada, so she’s looking north and south, which I think is fascinating. Her focus on Latin American art is something we understand as a kind of parallel methodology to so much of what we do in Modern art, but she also thought to look at nineteenth-century Canada, which is fantastic. Also First Nations, we have Cherokee artists in our collection. We have the first transgender artist, I would say, in any American museum. That’s Greer Lankton’s “Portrait of Rachel Rosenthal.” Greer Lankton died here in Chicago, and she’s the first transgender artist to enter the collection. So, we are, I think, doing incredibly well on diversity and we are going to move it out from there. Modern and Contemporary has been a leader in the field, not just at the Art Institute. We’re going to expand that universe of obligation to diversity. I mentioned the American arts, but you’re also seeing it in European art on the third floor, and you’re seeing it in our Latin American and Asian art. The changes are going to be moving throughout departments, but I actually think we have a leadership role among our peer group in regard to diversity.
How does that emphasis on diversity translate into staffing? The collection is becoming more diverse, but what about the people researching and presenting those objects?
It’s a priority. You’ll see more diversity on our staff now in terms of people of color than you’ve ever seen before. We are still only at the beginning of what we need to accomplish, but there’s been a sea of change. Particularly if you look at the department of Museum Education and how we’re approaching interpretation and public programming, you’ll see a great diversity in our staff. We have incredible new hires, almost all young people, incredibly brilliant from all different geographic points of origin. We need to address that and we are looking at it seriously in other areas, but we’re not alone. Art history, as a field, has not historically supported diversity. We’re also involved in a Mellon initiative that is training young curators of color. We just on-boarded two new scholars, and we have six already. In that sense, I think that we are a leader in the field.
And again, to return to our long-range plan, we talk about these two pillars. One is collections and exhibitions, where we talk about Asian and global contemporary art. The key word that we pull out there is ‘global.’ We talk about visitor experience, we talk about access, and the key word that we use there is ‘inclusive.’ So the two key words that we pull out of this huge document are ‘global’ and ‘inclusive.’ Exhibitions and collections will be global, and the audience will be inclusive. A word that links those two is ‘diversity.’ In a way, it’s a kind of linchpin of the umbrella. We’re talking about almost everything we’re doing going forward being governed by the principles of diversity and inclusiveness. This is built into the DNA of our long-range plan, and I don’t know that we’ve ever called it out quite like that, but we are delivering. You’ll see it in our galleries and our exhibition program.
Now that you’ve moved up to direct the museum, what are your thoughts on hiring your replacement in the department of Modern and Contemporary art?
It’s a difficult assignment to replace oneself, but I’m excited to do it. I want to bring in someone bigger, better and brighter than I was able to be in that position. I want to always hire up, hire better. I have ideas and I am working on it. It will be key to have someone there that can keep us moving forward in a way that will really enable me to be there and be a part of it but not have to look back and reclaim some aspects of my former post.
We started with the short-term, so let’s end with the long-term. What do you see on the horizon for the Art Institute?
As I mentioned, the key thing for us is being governed by these principles of diversity and inclusiveness. The other thing that we channel our ambitions into is spatial expansion. We have a concrete need to expand. We have a very finite campus; we are bounded by Michigan and Columbus, Monroe and Jackson. This is not growth that will be unchecked forever. It’s a finite proposition. There is in some degree a kind of manifest destiny at some point that we will have to fulfill in terms of how we occupy these four borders. I don’t know if it’s in five years or in ten years, but we definitely have an eye now to begin to conceptualize the next round of how we refine and grow this physical property.
Elliot J. Reichert is a Chicago-based curator, critic, and editor. He is a currently a Hatch Projects Curatorial Resident at the Chicago Artist Coalition and Art Editor of Newcity. Formerly, he was Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. His writing has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of Visual Culture, and Newcity.