A Post-Millennial Turn

Chicago’s premier venue for contemporary art overhauls its design collection and anticipates a new extension.

Despite the Art Institute of Chicago’s internationally renowned contemporary painting collection—not to mention the city’s world-class architectural heritage—the museum’s design department has remained decidedly narrow in scope. But that will change now that Joseph Rosa, former curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), has been hired as the John H. Bryan Curator of Architecture and Design to expand the department’s collection and make it competitive with the museum’s other holdings. Metropolis senior editor Kristi Cameron spoke to Rosa about his new role, the work he hopes to acquire, and how Renzo Piano’s extension to the museum’s 1893 Beaux Arts building—situated across from the new Millennium Park—will position the institute both physically and culturally as a new destination for design.

Why come from SFMOMA, which is known for its architecture and design department, to the Art Institute?
SFMOMA’s architecture and design department is one of the few in the country, and also one of the strongest. But I’ve been given the opportunity to take a regional architecture department and expand it to include international architecture and design, as well as to hire a new design curator and an associate architecture curator. It’s a rare opportunity that was difficult to say no to.

How does Chicago compare to San Francisco as a context for promoting architecture and design?
San Francisco is a different city with a different kind of legend attached to it. Its biggest problem historically is that it keeps losing talented young people to the East Coast. They get discovered in the East, get poached and blossom there, even though they started out in the West. One of the few who came West and stayed is Yves Béhar. Chicago has had a strong tradition of designers who have made it a very vibrant city—Louis Sullivan, John Wellborn Root Sr., Dankmar Adler—and a large proportion of philanthropists and civic-minded people. It’s one of the few cities in the United States where the general public is interested in architecture—though not necessarily in design. But once you make them realize that architecture is just one aspect of design, more people will be interested.

What are your immediate plans for the department?
I will be looking at what kind of exhibitions were done in the past and at the breadth and depth of the collection, putting together a new framework for the program. I’ll also be looking to distill work from the museum as a whole; part of my mission is to make it an equal of the contemporary painting department.

How will you do that?
By looking at the holdings the department has—an amazingly strong Chicago collection. I am a firm believer that the best way to show its strength is to internationalize and thus contextualize it, which prevents the collection from being seen as hermetic. Right now that means looking at the distant past, recent past, and near future to see who’s in the collection and where the omissions are. Then we’re putting together a wish list—almost like a bridal registry—of what we need to put, say, a Louis Sullivan, Mies, or Frank Lloyd Wright drawing in the context of other aesthetic movements in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

What would you like your first acquisition to be?
I would love for one of the first acquisitions to be a historical drawing that puts the early 1920s into perspective—a drawing by Frederick Kiesler or Le Corbusier, or something of that nature. I would like to see drawings by significant thinkers come into the collection—not all “masters,” per se. As you know, in design it’s not always the three big names that made everything. But I’d like to see Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Kiesler, and Paul Rudolph in the collection.

What would you like your first exhibition to be?
I would like to see something that is historical and from beyond Chicago. I would also like to see something relatively recent and international that has Chicago folded in. I think the first show we produce will be about a contemporary issue or a current way of thinking in architecture or industrial design, maybe blurring the boundaries between the two.

Will you highlight young designers the way you did at SFMOMA?
Of course—I want to highlight both young designers and historical figures. The first show I ever curated was on Albert Frey, so I’m a strong believer in the historical. The best way for people to understand what’s going on today is to show them what has happened in the past—not as a measure against which everything new is regarded as a failure but as a prototype for looking at how today’s thinkers are building on the past to be progressive or inventive.

What do you think of the Renzo Piano building extension?
It’s going to be great. This is a very exciting time for the Art Institute and for Chicago as a whole. Jim Cuno, the new director and president, is an amazing thinker. The addition—the planning of which predates him—says a lot about the history behind the institution. It also says a lot about John Bryan, who is chairman of the board. Along with Mayor Daley, he played a big role in the creation of Millennium Park. He took a look at the park’s relation to the city and the Art Institute, and said, “Maybe it needs a bridge.” A bridge from Millennium Park to the museum’s roof-garden restaurant is an ideal way to make the building a friendly space for everyone to experience.

Tell me about the site.
It’s a tricky site. From above, the building is basically a large square that straddles the train tracks. It’s Beaux Arts on one side, with an enclosed bridge gallery. In the 1970s an addition was made on the side closest to the lake. That was always seen as the back end, so giving it a new facade and a new sense of presence works better for an extension than if it was already very prominent. From the inside of this two-story glass atrium space you turn around, look out toward the facade, and you get a view of Millennium Park. So there’s a visual clarity that will tie the site together. It also plays off the Beaux Arts notion of symmetry of the visual axes. It’s in keeping with the building’s vocabulary.

Is it a design that you can embrace as a symbol of the direction of the architecture and design department?
Very much so: Piano is a very important designer who has done amazing work. And I think it dovetails nicely with the creation of this expanded department as well as the institution’s way of thinking as a whole for the twenty-first century in Chicago.

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