In comparison with the first two chapters of the MCA's history, the museum's organizational leadership since arriving at 220 East Chicago Avenue has been smooth - the exceptions being during transitions of museum directors.
Kevin Consey and Robert Fitzpatrick, the previous directors to today's Madeleine Grynsztejn, the first woman in the post, served 9 and 10 years respectively, representing the longest uninterrupted leadership of the museum's history.
Allen Turner remained the chair of the museum's board of trustees until his 5-year term expired in 1996. In succession, the next four board chairs were women: Penny Pritzker (1996), Sally Meyers Kovler (1999), Helen Zell (2003), Mary Ittelson (2008). The current chair, King Harris, began his term in 2012.
Upon arriving at the armory site on Block 21, like the facility itself, the museum staff increased exponentially.
Of a current roster of nearly 100 in 18 different departments, more than 40 individuals have worked at the MCA for more than 10 years.
Peter Taub, the onetime director of Randolph Street Gallery who was hired in 1996 to promote the museum's performance offerings, has succeeded in offering robust programming in a popular venue. In my conversation with Kevin Consey, the MCA director during the architectural planning stage, he mentioned his regret in not allowing for more theater space.
At the end of 1997, after a year at the new museum, Kevin Consey's contract, which was up, was not renewed. (Hear my conversation with Consey, here.)
In a November 27, 1997 Chicago Reader newspaper article titled, "MCA director Kevin Consey bows out after 8 years in a pressure cooker," Lewis Lazare wrote of Consey's resignation: "Few in the local art community were surprised by news of Consey's departure; for months rumors had been circulating that he was under siege from the board." Various named and anonymous sources contributed quotes in defense of Consey and the museum. Echoing my impressions from 2013 phone conversations with Consey, gallerist Roberta Lieberman said, "Kevin was under tremendous pressure, and for his own health it was time for him to slow down."
In March 1997, eight months prior to Kevin Consey's resignation notice and within a year of the new museum's opening, chief curator Richard Francis resigned. In Lewis Lazare's Culture Club column in the weekly Chicago Reader, headlines (which link to the archived article) and select sentences provide a concise timetable of the next wave of curatorial and staff turnover:
March 20, 1997
MCA Loses a Curator
"Less than a year after opening its new $46 million home, the Museum of Contemporary Art will have to find a new chief curator. Richard Francis abruptly resigned last Thursday after four years at the helm. In that time he was both praised for exhibiting important contemporary art and sharply criticized for his oddly academic tastes."
(Lazare suggested that today's MCA director, Madeleine Grynsztejn, would be a good candidate for Francis' replacement.)
February 5, 1998
Another MIA at MCA
The exodus from the Museum of Contemporary Art continues. Late last month Lucinda Barnes, curator of collections, announced that she will leave the museum at the end of February to take a new position as director of the Boise Art Museum.
April 30, 1998
Another Act of Attrition at the MCA
Now comes word that public relations director Maureen King will depart at the end of June; her position is being eliminated, and public relations will be handled by her assistant, Michael Thomas, who will answer to Lori Kleinerman, director of marketing and membership. Tour and travel coordinator Noah Garber, who's arranged paid tour groups since January 1997, is out of a job as well; when he leaves this month, his duties will be folded into the education department.
May 14, 1998
Meanwhile, Back at the MCA
The best and the brightest continue to head for the exits at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Amada Cruz, acting chief curator, has announced that she will leave at the end of July for Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where she will direct the museum at the college's Center for Curatorial Studies and Art in Contemporary Culture. Cruz was named acting chief at the MCA in February 1997, after chief curator Richard Francis resigned. Lucinda Barnes, the curator of collections, left the museum two months ago, so Cruz's departure will leave the museum with only one full curator, Lynne Warren, who reportedly keeps only a part-time schedule. Three other staffers hold the title of assistant curator.
September 10, 1998
Either Way She's Off the Team
Stories of people resigning from the Museum of Contemporary Art are beginning to fall into the "dog bites man" category. Last week Janeanne Upp, the museum's associate director and second-in-command, quietly gave notice, effective September 30.
September 17, 1998
Changing of the Guard
Robert Fitzpatrick, the new director of the drifting Museum of Contemporary Art, says he's in no hurry to fill the long-vacant post of chief curator.
December 17, 1998
The Chosen Ones
No one can accuse Robert Fitzpatrick of championing art for art's sake. During his first six months as director and CEO of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Fitzpatrick has appointed new administrators for membership, publications, and public relations; he's also planned changes to the museum's physical appearance and developed a penchant for throwing parties at the museum's expense. But last week the former Disney executive and university administrator finally addressed the 20-month-old leadership vacuum in the museum's curatorship: Elizabeth Smith, a 15-year veteran of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, will join Chicago's MCA as chief curator on February 15, and Francesco Bonami, formerly U.S. editor of Flash Art International, will become senior curator on January 1.
For all of the staff rearrangements under Robert Fitzpatrick's earliest days at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, his organizational and business acumen helped establish the museum we know today on Chicago Avenue. Initially criticized for spending too much money on fundraising parties, the MCA's essential numbers remained healthy.
July 29, 1999
Vital Signs Up at MCA
Attendance figures are creeping upward at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where Robert Fitzpatrick recently completed his first year as director and CEO. According to spokesperson Sally Blanks, the MCA's attendance totaled 273,676 for fiscal year 1999, an increase of 3.4 percent over the previous year's 264,567. (The figures include both paid and unpaid attendance.)
After ten years at the helm, and leaving at that originally stated milestone, Robert Fitzpatrick stepped down as the MCA's director.
An international search resulted in the appointment of the museum's first female director. Hear my conversation with Madeleine Grynsztejn, here.