As the millennium turned in Chicago, the Terra Museum of American Art was on many people’s lists of favorite little places, an oasis of culture on crass North Michigan Avenue roughly in the space the Harley-Davidson store now occupies.
But that compact gem, home to an inspiring permanent collection and compelling special exhibitions, closed in 2004 and suddenly the Terra Foundation for American Art, the museum’s backer, was largely out of the public eye. It still had a treasure trove of artworks and a big endowment to wield, but its focus shifted to, largely, backstage work.
That is changing in a major way this year. Art Design Chicago, developed, guided and primarily funded by the Terra, aims to bring into sharper focus the contributions to visual culture made in this city in the past 125 years: “rounding out the story of American art to include more from the middle, not just the coasts,” as Jennifer Siegenthaler, Terra’s lead Chicago grantmaker, put it.
It is a first-of-its-kind, $ 7.9 million effort that will see more than two dozen exhibitions, 100 public programs, more than a dozen digital and media projects and academic programs, and untold paragraphs worth of new writing on the city’s visual legacy in venues citywide and into some of the suburbs.
Art Design Chicago is already underway, with three exhibitions on minority artists best known for their mural work, and the coming months will bring major new shows on painter Charles White, photographer Kenneth Josephson, the Hairy Who? art collective and Chicago mid-century design work. (The complete list is at artdesignchicago.org.)
In the fall University of Chicago Press will publish a history of Chicago art from 1871 to 2010, and WTTW-Ch. 11 will debut a documentary series exploring the same topic, backed by ADC funds, which also include contributions from the Driehaus Foundation and others.
And the Terra says it is holding back announcement of some other special events in order to be able to goose interest in the event as the year rolls along.
“At the end of 2018 I would love for people to recognize how Chicago’s art and design legacy inspires contemporary ideas,” Elizabeth Glassman, president and CEO of the Terra, said in announcing the initiative at a Cultural Center event last spring.
It all took more than five years to plan: Five years of meetings with the more than three dozen cultural organizations that ended up being partners, of reviewing proposals for exhibitions and events to fund, of shaping the scope and the selling of this far-reaching event.
It’s also a direct investment of $ 6.5 million in funding from the Terra, which typically gives away between $ 10 million and $ 15 million annually, Glassman said.
So to finally have the year arrive has been exciting in the usually reserved headquarters of the foundation, still located in that same building where Harley-Davidson and Tommy Bahama sell wares.
“January came, and we’re like, ‘OK, we’re ready!’ ” Glassman said in an interview last week. “It’s thrilling, it really is. I can’t wait for the year.”
“I’m not sure if I’ve had any surprises,” Glassman added. “I think you have to ask me that at the end when I’ve seen the exhibitions. A lot of these artists I don’t know. But there are some themes that have emerged that we can see: the importance of the South Side; the importance of the Institute of Design (at IIT, formerly the New Bauhaus); the importance of social action art, social justice — that is very much a thread in Chicago; the importance of the manufacturing and distribution that was here.”
They thought, briefly, about calling the initiative Lake Effect, but although that has more poetry as a title, it would also prove inscrutable to those who don’t know the term, the planners feared. A title based on the idea of central time might have worked, but that would have been too close to Pacific Standard Time, an ongoing initiative of Los Angeles’ Getty Foundation that has boosted the profile of that city’s artwork — and was an inspiration for the Terra.
“One of our curators — we never considered it seriously — but he said we should call it From the Fire to the Fridge,” Glassman said. “I thought it was hysterical.”
And the foundation’s primary goal, Glassman and Siegenthaler said, has been to call attention to Chicago’s legacy even as it stimulates cooperation and the exchange of knowledge among cultural institutions.
But if, along the way, people here become more aware of the Terra, that won’t be a bad thing, either.
Daniel J. Terra, a Pennsylvania native who settled in Chicago as a young adult, was a chemist who made his money mostly in printing inks. As his Northbrook firm Lawter International grew, he became an avid collector — and booster — of American art.
Terra (1911-1996) started the foundation in 1978 and opened the first Terra Museum in Evanston in 1980. It moved to Chicago in 1987. The foundation operated a second American art museum, in Giverny, France, from 1992 to 2009; that has become a French-owned museum of Impressionism.
There was family infighting that resulted in legal action around the turn of the millennium. But with the closing of the Michigan Avenue museum in 2004, the foundation emerged with a purpose, Glassman said: It decided it could be more effective as a “museum without walls.” Its motto: “Bringing American Art to the World and the World to American Art.”
“There was a lot of trouble at the Terra, but now we’ve gone to being the terrific Terra,” she said. “Our mission hasn’t changed. It’s still to promote American art. The question is, Do you want to run two museums where the audiences that you can impact are limited to those people who visit? Or do you want to go out to the audiences?”
At the time the foundation’s practice changed, about “10 to 15 percent of our grant requests were from non-US museums that wanted to do projects on American art,” Glassman said. Now it is about 65 to 70 percent. “There is a growing respect for American art,” she said.
With an endowment of about $ 380 million, the foundation owns some 750 artworks (and continues to collect); about 30 percent of them are on loan at any one time, executives said, including a sizable collection on “semi-permanent” loan to the Art Institute. (Among the Terra works typically on display there is Walt Kuhn’s potent “Clown with Drum,” usually found in the same gallery as Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”)
In addition to loaning art and making grants not only for exhibitions but for publications and teaching fellowships, the foundation remains very much it the exhibition game. In 2018, it is a co-organizer with Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of “America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper,” going up at the Ashmolean in March; “Pathways to Modernism: American Art 1865–1945,” organized in partnership with the Art Institute, begins in September at China’s Shanghai Museum.
“We have a big profile outside of the United States,” said Glassman. “In fact, I laughed one night. I was at a reception. We had funded something at the National Gallery in London where we work with them quite regularly. And those trustees knew more about the foundation than people in Chicago do. So now we’ll correct that.
“I’d like people to know that we’re here and that we’re supporting Chicago institutions and that we are taking Chicago also around the world. We always said we’re a Chicago-based organization.
“But really, I’ll be happy when people just go to the exhibitions. If they get a new curiosity about Chicago’s art and design legacy, if they get a new understanding about the richness of what happened in the past and what’s happening now, I’ll be thrilled.”