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Chicago museums facing financial woes as major exhibits are sidelined by pandemic

Potentially exerting a substantial impact on museum bottom lines are cancellations of big-budget exhibitions that have been in the works for several years.

Claude Monet. Poppy Field (Giverny), 1890/91. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball Collection.
“Monet and Chicago” at the Art Institute of Chicago includes the painter’s “Poppy Field (Giverny)” from 1890-91.
The Art Institute of Chicago/Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball Collection.

American museums are losing at least $33 million a day because of continuing closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American Alliance of Museums, a national support and advocacy organization for the field.

Losses in Illinois were expected to top $7.3 million in revenues through April 30 based on responses from 56 museums and galleries in a statewide survey conducted by Arts Alliance Illinois.

If the virus shutdown were to stretch through July 1, the Field Museum alone would likely experience a revenue shortfall of $20 million, said Ray DeThorne, chief marketing officer. The broader impact on Chicago-area organizations is harder to pin down, because institutions like the Museum of Science and Industry and Art Institute of Chicago have released little or no information about possible cutbacks or layoffs. But many are clearly hurting.

“As with many non-profits,” said Lisa Key, deputy director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, “we are projecting a shortfall in revenue and a fiscal deficit in the coming year. But we are being proactive in cutting our expenses early to help with our financial sustainability, through executive pay-cuts, salary and hiring freezes and cutting non-essential expenses.”

Speaking of the field nationwide, Santa Fe, New Mexico, museum consultant Gail Anderson said that some institutions were already “financially wobbly” with only three months or so of cash reserves and the restrictions around COVID-19 landed a body blow. “We’ll see some close, for sure,” she said.

A rendering of a Plesiosaur.
A rendering of a plesiosaur, part of the planned exhibit “Jurassic Oceans.”
Copyright Field Museum

On the positive side, the Chicago-based Terra Foundation for American Art announced on April 29 the creation of an $8 million COVID-19 relief fund for visual arts-organizations. And on May 4, the public-private Arts for Illinois Relief Fund announced it has awarded $3.3 million to 906 artists and 166 cultural organizations, including the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture and Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.

Potentially exerting a substantial impact on museum bottom lines are cancellations of big-budget exhibitions that have been in the works for several years. But, so far at least, five of Chicago’s current or upcoming such shows have been extended or postponed, and none to this point has had to be eliminated.

To reschedule such offerings, museums have to secure the cooperation of organizers, sponsors, lenders and insurers and undertake considerable juggling of calendars. “That’s the dance we are all doing, and it’s incredibly stressful,” DeThorne said.

Here is a look at the status of those shows:

Claude Monet, “Bordighera,” 1884. The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection.
Claude Monet, “Bordighera,” 1884. The Art Institute of Chicago, Potter Palmer Collection.
Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

“Monet and Chicago,” originally scheduled for May 10-Sept. 7, Art Institute. Gloria Groom, chair of European painting and sculpture, expects this look at the relationship between the celebrated Impressionist and Chicago art collectors to open four to five weeks after staff are allowed to return to the building, whenever that is. Its closing date will then be extended to promote maximum visitorship. To allow for the new reality of social distancing, the layout in Regenstein Hall will be expanded and partition walls and benches removed. “Luckily, that space is big, and we always assumed that it [the show] would be spacious, but now we need even more space,” Groom said. At the same time, the Art Institute has launched the “Art Institute Essentials Tour,” an on-line video series looking at its most iconic works.

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with Small Monkey,” 1945, oil on masonite. Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico.
“Frida Kahlo: Timeless,” rescheduled for 2021 at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art, will include the artist’s 1945 “Self-Portrait with Small Monkey,” from the collection of the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilco, Mexico.
© 2020 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

—“Frida Kahlo: Timeless,” rescheduled for June 5-Sept. 6, 2021, Cleve Carney Museum of Art, College of DuPage. The college recently completed a $2.8 million overhaul of what was formerly known as the Cleve Carney Art Gallery, adding 1,000 square feet of display space and significantly enhancing the facility’s lighting, security and climate controls. The changes were carried out specifically so that the renamed gallery could accommodate what the college is billing as the most comprehensive display of Kahlo’s work in Chicago since 1978. It was supposed to open June 1, but with the shutdown and the logistical concerns around the virus, officials postponed it until 2021 with the cooperation of the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City. “It fell into place. Everybody made it work,” said Diana Martinez, director of the McAninch Arts Center, which houses the museum. Throughout May, the museum and arts center are offering online children’s art classes and virtual artist studio visits via their Facebook pages.

A cast of a skeleton of a plesiosaur, a reptile that lived in the oceans during the time of the dinosaurs. This photo’s credit is © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.
From the Field Museum’s postponed “Jurassic Oceans,” a cast of a skeleton of a plesiosaur, a reptile that lived in the oceans during the time of the dinosaurs.
© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

— “Jurassic Oceans,” originally scheduled for June 12-Jan. 3, 2021, Field Museum. The exhibition of prehistoric marine predators, which was organized by the Natural History Museum in London, is currently at a museum in Bahrain. It has to be packed and shipped to London and then reshipped to Chicago, but all three institutions are closed, so nothing can happen yet. DeThorne is confident the show will eventually make its way to Chicago, but he doesn’t know when that might be. “It’s literally a web of things that have to happen,” he said. “So, picking a date is almost impossible.” While the museum is closed, it has consolidated on-line educational resources and behind-the-scenes looks at fieldmuseum.org/fromhome.

“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” originally scheduled for June 20-Sept. 27, Chicago Cultural Center. The status of this show, which was organized by the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati and offers an in-depth look at the pivotal African-American painter, is unknown. “The exhibition schedule for the Chicago Cultural Center will likely see some changes when it reopens,” said Christine Carrino, communications director for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “However, there are so many variables at this time that we don’t yet know which exhibitions may be extended, postponed or rescheduled.”

Installation view, “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago, 2020.” Photo: Kendall McCaugherty.
Installation view, “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago, 2020,” Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Kendall McCaugherty

“Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago,” extended through Sept. 27, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Drawing on more than 350 works from the MCA’s holdings and private and public collections across the city, the Nigerian-born British designer has curated a show that looks at the relationships between artists and objects. It has been extended through the end of September, by which time the museum expects to be reopened. “It was made to be a gift for the city, and I just hope we all have a chance to revisit it again soon,” said senior curator Naomi Beckwith. In the meantime, the MCA has put together “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago Virtual Gallery,” an extensive on-line look at the offering.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.