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Forever Young: Douglas Druick Gets Art Institute of Chicago’s Directorship

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Douglas Druick, Art Institute of Chicago’s newly named president and director

Here’s an appointment to a museum directorship that I think we can all agree on: It’s well deserved, on all counts.

After a 26-year career of distinguished service to the Art Institute of Chicago, the scholarly, articulate and always welcoming Douglas Druick has been named as the new president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was already acting president and director as of the June departure of James Cuno, now happily ensconced at the Getty Trust. Previously (and simultaneously), Druick had been the chair of both the museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings and its Department of Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture.

In the museum’s press release, its chairman, Tom Pritzker, alluded to the advantages of appointing from within, rather than searching for an outside candidate (as Chicago did when it appointed Cuno):

Many curators from the Art Institute have become directors at other museums and cultural organizations. To me, this [the appointment of Druick] reflects the strength of our organization. I could not be more pleased that the Art Institute itself is now benefiting directly from the breadth and depth of experience that only an institution of this size and stature can provide.

Some observers have rained a little on Druick’s parade, taking note of his slightly advanced age. Here’s Kate Taylor‘s report in the NY Times‘ on how he parried that senior-citizen question:

He said he planned to stay “a very long time.” He added, “I wake up every morning anxious to be in the office and totally energized by this new position, and I have lots and lots of plans.”

You go, Doug!

Two conversations that I had with Druick—one at the May 2009 opening of Chicago’s Modern Wing, the other more than a year later at the New York press preview for Matisse: Radical Invention (jointly organized with the Museum of Modern Art)—demonstrated his dual strengths, as both an objects person and a people person.

In Chicago, he spoke to me about the benefits of the museum’s just completed expansion, noting that the modern collection had previously been dispersed to several different locations within the sprawling museum, making it “necessary for visitors to stitch together the various experiences. Now we’re able to be much more coherent and give the pictures and sculptures the room that they need. There’s a real luxury of space now.”

Here are what he saw as the chief benefits of this enhanced space:

I think the conversations between works of art are different. The great strength of Chicago is Surrealism….Now we’re able to present them not only together but to do something with those…,situating them in a darkened space with more dramatic lighting against the experience of natural light in the galleries.

We make the point in the audio tour that we’re presenting the history of modern art as it can be told in Chicago….We’ve made a conscious effort to play the history of the collection up against the history of the city by gesturing to the city.

From the macro of the overall installation, he drilled down into the micro of how individual artworks had benefited during the transition period from old to new galleries:

We used the time that the collections were down to do cleaning on some 30% of the modern pictures and reframe some 30% of them. Many of them are substantially transformed…, [including] Matisse‘s “Bathers by the River” [which Druick is standing in front of in the above photo]:

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Matisse, “Bathers by a River,” 1909-10, 1913, 1916-1917
© 2009 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

If you had seen that picture three years ago, you would have been unaware of the gorgeous turquoise and all the pinks and the evidence of the artist’s mark-making….Earlier in the [20th] century, conservators had inpainted areas….There had been interventions on the surface of the painting that we got rid of to reveal what the picture is all about.

He also noted that varnish (now removed) that had previously been applied to the surface of Matisse’s Fauve “Geranium” had acted “almost like cataracts, not enabling the viewer to see the work with clarity.”

Here’s that vibrant picture:

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Matisse, “The Geranium,” 1906
© 2009 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Because I didn’t get a good look at the Modern Wing’s galleries until after I had spoken to him, I was happy to get another chance to chat with Douglas the following year in New York, where I asked him about what I had regarded as a serious lighting deficiency in the skylit top floor of the Renzo Piano-designed expansion.

It wasn’t until I viewed “Bathers by a River” at the MoMA exhibition that I felt I had finally seen it to good advantage. As I had said in my Virago in Chicago post, that painting had suffered “death-by-inadequate-illumination” at the Chicago press preview. Here’s how it looked then (with natural light on the painting and a spotlight on the Matisse bust):

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And here’s how it looked under artificial illumination at MoMA:

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This is what Druick told me in July 2010 about the pesky lighting tweaks in the Modern Wing:

We have been playing with the balance between natural light and artificial light….What is the optimal light at different times of year? In winter, the light is grayer than in the summer….The light level on the meters that we use to read light, may measure the same [at different times of year], but it doesn’t feel the same. So it’s playing with that: It’s playing with the experience, not with the absolute light level. Sometimes we change the program settings. We change the total levels.

It’s an experiment: What works in August doesn’t work in January. It’s figuring out how much change to you want over a year. We’re getting closer and closer to what will be the status quo in the future.

Now Druick will have a lot more to play with. For a glowing assessment of Druick’s ascension, go to this piece by someone who knows him a lot better than I—Alan Artner, the former art critic of the Chicago Tribune. (Bring him back!) Artner concludes by noting that “for this director, the position is not a steppingstone but a capstone to a remarkable career.”

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