James Rondeau’s rise at Art Institute Signals Contemporary Art is New Power Base

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James Rondeau’s rise at Art Institute Signals Contemporary Art is New Power Base

Last December, Mary Jane Jacob attended a memorial service for Howard Stone, an art collector and Art Institute of Chicago trustee who served on the School of the Art Institute’s board of governors. Jacob is a longtime curator and respected executive director of exhibitions and exhibition studies at the school, and she has attended her share of art-world memorials and celebrations. As she describes it, Stone’s service was suffused with intimacy, thanks in part to the eulogy given by James Rondeau, then the chief contemporary art curator at the museum.

“James’ presentation talked of a relationship of consulting and sharing art with these people, of being in their home, as nearly a son,” Jacob recalls. The memorial underlined the relationship he had with Stone—and with the museum’s other wealthy collectors, who make up the most powerful nonprofit board in Chicago. “It’s not just about ‘who can we get to foot the bill, who can we get to give us stuff?’ ” says Jacob. “It was a deep and personal relationship.”

A few weeks later, Rondeau was named to the museum’s top job, which paid $761,000 in total compensation in 2013, according to the latest publicly available 990 form. The South Hadley, Mass., native, who’s 46, replaces Douglas Druick, who announced his retirement in October. Rondeau becomes one of the youngest chiefs of a major American art museum.

Rondeau’s promotion—made, the museum says, after a worldwide search—is smart. And safe.

“Safe is not necessarily bad,” says Lee Rosenbaum, a veteran art critic and journalist who blogs at CultureGrrl.com. “Risky,” she says, “can be dangerous.”

The promotion signals, too, how his area of expertise has become a power base for those who want to move up the ranks: Modern and contemporary art is the hot, fresh realm of the moment for collectors, including many Art Institute of Chicago trustees. Trustee Ken Griffin this month lent the Art Institute a Willem de Kooning and a Jackson Pollock together valued at $500 million; another trustee, attorney Irving Stenn, has given the museum more than 100 contemporary drawings.

Citing busy schedules, the Art Institute of Chicago declined to make its new director or board chair Robert Levy available for interviews. But art-world experts here and in other cities say Rondeau’s appointment came as no surprise given his ties to the donor community. “Running a museum like that really requires you to have a relationship with trustees and the community,” says Jens Hoffmann, deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York. An outside hire would “need a lot of work and time to establish relationships. James was there, he knew the people, he’s very qualified.”

Rondeau has “an incredible passion for art,” as well as “knowledge of the culture of the museum, and the values trustees hold dear,” says Griffin, founder and CEO of Citadel. The trustee and collector says he looks forward to Rondeau’s directorship, which could span at least one and most likely two or more decades. “It will be wonderful to have that continuity in leadership,” especially as the Art Institute plans to expand its physical presence.

“The Modern Wing will not be the Art Institute’s last great building,” Griffin adds.

CURATORIAL TALENTS

Over his 18 years there as a curator, Rondeau helped the Art Institute build a formidable reputation as a showcase for contemporary and modern art. The Modern Wing, which came to fruition under his watch, opened its galleries to lesser-known contemporary artists, among them Roni Horn and Monica Bonvicini, as well as a destination for popular retrospectives of Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein.

Museumgoers haven’t seen the last of Rondeau’s curatorial talents. Sometime in 2017, the museum will stage a retrospective of the works of contemporary Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica, an exhibition Rondeau co-curated with the Whitney Museum in New York and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. But now that he’s director, his main responsibility shifts from tending art to cultivating donors, which is “80 percent of a director’s job,” Hoffmann says. “You can’t be afraid to ask people for thousands of dollars.”

Not counting gifts of art, financial contributions to the Art Institute have stayed steady over the past several years, a pattern reflecting that of art museums nationwide, according to a spokeswoman from the Association of Art Museum Directors, a nonprofit that represents 236 North American institutions. Contributions to the Art Institute totaled $51.5 million for the fiscal year ended June 30, down slightly from fiscal 2014, when contributions were $54.4 million (after factoring out $15.4 million in bequests due to a change in how the museum records gifts from estates). For fiscal 2013, contributions were $38.7 million.

Tending donors who make gifts of art as well as cash is tricky business. “Curators can be a bit more free agents than directors,” says Adam Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney. “The notion of curatorial independence is such that there’s a bit of a firewall between the trustees and the curatorial aspects of a museum,” he says. A directorship carries “a different level of fiduciary responsibilities.”

Take, for instance, the Art Institute’s biggest gift ever, the $400 million collection of modern and contemporary art from collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson. Part of the deal is that their artworks will be displayed as an ensemble for 25 years. Only then can they be rotated throughout the museum and interspersed with other items from the permanent collection.

That hasn’t been the case with other collections—for instance, after the Terra Museum closed in 2008, the Terra Foundation made a long-term loan of 400 works. Some are on display alongside other works in the American wings, while others may be viewed by appointment.

“The problem . . . is the fiefdom being carved out for one collector,” says Rosenbaum, indicating that the deal was made under Rondeau’s watch. “This is, to me, really putting the collectors before the artists,” she says. “You should be able to intermingle different works.”

Rosenbaum reviewed the Modern Wing’s opening, in 2009, for the Wall Street Journal. She says that at the opening, she talked to Griffin, who told her that his collection might one day end up at the Art Institute. “Ken might say, ‘I want my own gallery for my collection,’ ” Rosenbaum says. “I find that’s really dangerous and a bad idea.”

Griffin, who has lent many works from his collection to the museum, says neither Rondeau nor Druick had direction on where or how to show the loans. “They are consummate professionals,” he says. “I trust their judgment.” Rondeau, he adds, tops his go-to list of advisers for art purchases, including that of the Pollock and de Kooning paintings. “That tells you how much I trust him,” Griffin says. “That purchase was made a year ago.”

THE HERE AND NOW

Sources say that Rondeau’s grooming for the job began in 2011 when Druick, now 70, was appointed director after two decades at the institution. Some have wondered why the nod didn’t go to Gloria Groom, the curator behind the Art Institute’s “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms,” a show on its way to blockbuster status. She has been at the museum since 1984 and oversees its collection of European art, which spans seven centuries.

The answer: Groom curates art from the way-back machine; Rondeau represents the here and now. “The critical and economic hold that modern and contemporary art has in the culture and its public imagination made James Rondeau the more likely in-house successor to Druick,” Michelle Grabner, Crown professor in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute, says in an email.

The appointment of a younger boss also mimics what’s happening at other major art museums, as boards give increasing weight to candidates who can relate to the young people who will one day become trustees, donors and lending collectors. Thomas Campbell, who was named CEO and director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008, spent 14 years there as a curator and is in his early 50s. Michael Govan, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is in his early 40s, as is Melissa Chiu, director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Olga Viso, executive director of Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is in her late 40s.

Viso points out another benefit of a relatively young director: Rondeau could enjoy many years at the helm of the Art Institute—and continuity serves museums well. “When directors change every three or five years, it’s hard to gain momentum,” she says.

His potential impact will be obvious right away: His first big hire is his own replacement as contemporary chair. “You have a really stable situation with Rondeau, and now you’re bringing in someone new. There’s always a risk that it won’t be a perfect match,” says John Corbett, co-owner of Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery in Chicago. Corbett says he suspects “a high-profile hire” from outside the museum.

Thanks to Rondeau, the museum’s contemporary curator is now an internationally prominent job.

This article on Crain’s Chicago Business website

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