New Art Institute director trusts Chicago's civic pride

Sunday, February 22, 2004

— James Cuno, newly appointed as director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago, came late to the world of museums and art collecting.

Cuno, 52, didn't have a museum job until he was in his 30s, and didn't even study art history formally until he realized he didn't have much of a future in theater.

But being a relative newcomer means Cuno still has a convert's zeal. He sees the museum experience as almost religious, and definitely good for you.

"It's almost therapeutic in offering people a chance to step back from the political anxieties of the world and connect, mentally and emotionally, with the people of other places and other times," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Cuno was recruited to take the helm in Chicago when current director James Wood retires in September.

Wood, who took no part in the selection process, said he was highly pleased by the choice of Cuno, calling him "a leader in the American and international art museum community for the past decade."

Public connection

For the past year, Cuno has been director of the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Nick Ferguson, chairman of that teaching and museum facility, said Cuno had done an excellent job at Courtauld.

Cuno acknowledged that there was some awkwardness in leaving London after so short a tenure, but said accepting the Chicago position meant obtaining his dream job.

One reason, he said, was the high quality of the museum's permanent collection. The Art Institute's assemblage of French impressionist paintings is world famous, but Cuno also praised its South Asian sculpture, 20th-century European and American works, architecture, fabrics and Old Master drawings.

Another reason, he said, was the active role the museum has always played in the cultural life of Chicago.

"The Art Institute has a very long investment in its relationship to the public," Cuno said. "It involves educational efforts, special exhibitions, publishing and many other factors."

But Cuno said the most important reason was the pride and proprietary attitude many Chicagoans have in the Art Institute.

Several years ago, in an interview with the Boston Globe, Cuno called the Art Institute "the greatest municipal art museum in America" and spoke of the sense of ownership ordinary Chicagoans feel toward the museum.

"And I didn't even know then that I'd be coming here," he said, laughing. "But there is definitely a feeling about the people visiting the place that this museum is THEIR museum. And you don't get that in many cities.

"Maybe it's that broad caricature called 'Midwestern identity,' but there's definitely something here."

Financial hit

For someone who has spent his entire career elsewhere, Cuno claims a Midwestern identity himself. The son of a career Air Force officer, he was born in St. Louis and spent his early years in Belleville, Ill., while his father was stationed at nearby Scott Air Force Base. The family later moved to various other bases in the United States and Bermuda.

While a history major at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., Cuno fell in love with Europe and began a habit of yearly visits there, which led to a lot of museum-hopping. But he didn't consider a career in museum work until after a number of years in experimental theater in San Francisco. Eventually, after realizing he was making more money as a theater janitor than as a performer, he decided to go to graduate school in art history. He received his master's degree from the University of Oregon and his doctorate from Harvard University.

In 1986, at 34, Cuno became director of a museum at the University of California at Los Angeles. Three years later, he assumed a similar post at Dartmouth College, and in 1991, he was chosen as director of Harvard's art museums.

In his 12 years at Harvard, Cuno doubled the museums' staff to 220 and helped quadruple their endowment to $360 million. Those credentials undoubtedly weighed in his selection for the post at the Art Institute, where membership has dipped by 11,000 in the past two years to about 108,000, and where assets have fallen $151 million in the same period to $575.5 million. Much of that loss has been blamed on poor investments by a financial services company no longer employed by the museum.

"Mr. Wood and the board of trustees did absolutely the right thing in that situation, largely because they took it very, very seriously," Cuno said. "I think the Art Institute is on solid ground financially. Besides, these losses tend to be cyclical. I started at Harvard in 1991, which was a very bad year, financially, and look at where we wound up."