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Griffin/Geffen & the Art Institute of Chicago’s Edlis Misstep

Last year, while he was chair and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago, the museum’s new director, James Rondeau, made a Faustian bargain that could come back to haunt him.

The museum’s press release announcing Rondeau’s promotion mentions that “over the course of his tenure, he secured numerous major gifts, most notably in 2015 when he ushered in the largest gift of art in the museum’s historythe Edlis/Neeson Collection” [emphasis added].

Collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson Photo by Jeremy Lawson

Collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson
Photo by Jeremy Lawson from AIC’s press release

What the release doesn’t mention is the strings attached to that windfall of 44 contemporary artworks (up from the 42 mentioned in the press release).

As reported by Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune (and confirmed to me by the museum):

The Art Institute agreed to keep them together for the next 25 years and on display in its galleries for 25 after that.

This carves out a single-collector fiefdom that disrupts the overall displays and sets a pernicious precedent: For at least 25 years, the Edlis works are to be set apart from other related works in the collection. For a full 50 years, the AIC won’t be able to rotate some Edlis works off view to make room for other pieces. What’s worse, this deal could well cause other important collectors to demand the same treatment for their gifts that’s been accorded to this Warhol and the rest of the Edlis trove:

Warhol, "Self-Portrait, 1966, Art Institute of Chicago Gift of Edlis|Neeson Collection © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Warhol, “Self-Portrait, 1966, Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Edlis|Neeson Collection
© 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Rondeau is an acquirer and undoubtedly wants to continue augmenting Chicago’s holdings with other important gifts. He “enriched the collection enormously,” then director James Cuno told attendees (including me) at a 2008 NYC press lunch previewing the museum’s new Modern Wing (which I later reviewed for the Wall Street Journal).

But Rondeau the curator has now created major complications for Rondeau the director, who will be impeded in attempts to tell a coherent story in the contemporary galleries that should be driven by the artists and the curators who interpret them, not by the vanity of collectors.

There’s nothing new about museums’ offering such extraordinary inducements for important collectors to relinquish their treasures. The Metropolitan Museum is notorious for its string of single-collector fiefdoms, going back to its superlative Benjamin Altman Collection of old masters.

But here’s what could happen in Chicago as a consequence of the Edlis Effect: If Chicago hedge-fund mogul Kenneth Griffin decides he’s ready to donate his major contemporary collection to the AIC (where he serves as trustee), he may expect equal treatment. When I chatted with Griffin at the 2009 opening of the Modern Wing, he told me this:

One day, our art collection will be in a museum. I’d like to think it will end up here.

Ken Griffin with AIC trustee John Nichols at the Modern Wing opening Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Ken Griffin, left, with John Nichols, husband of AIC trustee Alexandra, at the Modern Wing’s opening
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As first reported by Katya Kazakina for Bloomberg, Griffin’s collection has just been greatly enhanced by two paintings acquired from David Geffen, with the total purchase price said to have been “about $500 million.”

Kazakina writes:

Griffin bought de Kooning’s 1955 oil on canvas titled “Interchange” [not “Interchanged,” as misnamed to me by the AIC’s press office—an error repeated by the NY Times and others] for about $300 million and Pollock’s 1948 “Number 17A” canvas for about $200 million, one of the [unnamed] people [familiar with the transaction] said. The de Kooning fetched $20.7 million in 1989, then an auction record for the artist and more than three times the highest pre-sale estimate of $6 million, according to Artnet, which tracks auction prices.

I was in the Sotheby’s salesroom when that “record” was achieved. It should be accompanied by a big asterisk, because the winning bidder couldn’t pay. Nevertheless, the auction houses long persisted in citing that price as the de Kooning record.

Back in 2006, the NY TimesCarol Vogel reported that Griffin had purchased another pricey masterwork from Geffen—Jasper Johns‘ “False Start,” 1959, for some $80 million.

For now, Griffin’s two new trophies are on display at the AIC:

Photo: Art Institute of Chicago

Installation view of “The New Contemporary,” with de Kooning, “Interchange,” 1955, left; Pollock, “Number 17A,” 1948, right
Photo: Art Institute of Chicago

For a slightly better view of Griffin’s Pollock, courtesy of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, here is what it looked like in the famous 1949 Life magazine spread—“Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painting in the United States?” (see image on bottom right):


It would be a shame if that painting were one day relegated to a Griffin enclave at the AIC, unable to enter into direct dialogue with this Pollock, already owned by the museum. I saw it there at the opening of the Modern Wing, where it is still on display:

Pollock, "Greyed Rainbow," 1953, Art Institute of Chicago Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Pollock, “Greyed Rainbow,” 1953, Art Institute of Chicago
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Notwithstanding these misgivings, I think Rondeau’s appointment is a good one and potentially a great one: At age 46, he may stick around for a long time. Stability and continuity are important. Revolving-door directorships—from James Wood to James Cuno to Douglas Druick to Rondeau, in rapid succession—can be bad for morale and for long-term planning.

With 18 years at the AIC already under his belt, Rondeau has the knowledge and relationships to hit the ground running.

an ArtsJournal blog