James Rondeau with Richard Hunt’s Hero Construction, 1958 (detail). Artwork © Richard Hunt. All photographs by Whitten Sabbatini

Guardian of the gallery

As director of the Art Institute of Chicago, James Rondeau watches over some of the greatest icons of European and American painting, including a wealth of works gifted by the city’s foremost collectors. Claire Wrathall went to meet him

Among the stellar paintings that hang in the Art Institute of Chicago is a huge canvas, more than two metres high and seven metres wide, by Georgia O’Keeffe. Painted in 1965, Sky above Clouds IV  was made for a retrospective that opened at the Whitney in New York before moving to Chicago. It had been due to travel on to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but the painting was too big to fit through any of its entrances. So it remained where it was.

Not surprisingly, the Art Institute wanted to acquire it formally. In her youth, O’Keeffe had spent a year at its sister college, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum had staged the first retrospective of her work in 1943, and after the death of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, she had given it more than 400 works from his collection and photography archive. The painting belonged in Chicago. So, soon after he joined in 1980, its then director, James Wood, made the 1,200-mile journey to O’Keeffe’s home in Taos, New Mexico, to ‘close the deal’.

‘No one had paid a million dollars for a work by a living artist at that time,’ says James Rondeau, the current President and Eloise W. Martin Director of the Art Institute. ‘But Jim had been authorised by the trustees to offer her that.’ The price, he’d understood, had been agreed, but O’Keeffe demurred. ‘“No,” she said. “The price has changed. I’ve been reading about all those artists I used to know back east, what Lee Krasner is selling Jackson [Pollock]’s paintings for; what Bill de Kooning’s getting. So my price is two million.”

‘Jim said, “But, Miss O’Keeffe, this is the first errand I’ve been charged with. I’m only authorised to give you one million. This deal was done. I can’t go back empty-handed.”

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Sky above Clouds IV, 1965. Restricted gift of the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation; gift of Georgia O’Keeffe. © The Art Institute of Chicago

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Sky above Clouds IV, 1965. Restricted gift of the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation; gift of Georgia O’Keeffe. © The Art Institute of Chicago

‘She wasn’t budging. ‘“Go back to Chicago,” she said. “I’m going to write you a letter, and when you’ve read it, come back and see me again.” So Jim returned with his head hung in defeat. And then a registered letter arrived. It read: “Dear Mr Wood, Thank you for your visit. Enclosed please find a cheque for one million dollars. Come back and offer me two.”’

O’Keeffe was 92 by then. She can’t have needed the money. ‘She just said she wanted everyone to know that her pictures went for two million,’ says Rondeau, adding the caveat that Wood used to tell that story ‘after a second glass of red’, so the figures should be taken as ballpark rather than gospel. But Sky above Clouds IV  is still to be found in the institute’s Gallery 249. And its caption says it was partly a gift of the artist.

A contemporary specialist, Rondeau began working for the museum in 1998, but since his elevation to the top job at the USA’s second largest encyclopaedic museum (only the Metropolitan in New York has a bigger holding), he has absorbed an immense knowledge of much else in his custodianship — about 300,000 works spanning nearly 5,000 years, from Bronze Age Cycladic sculpture to 21st-century furniture by the Bouroullec brothers.

Founded in 1879, within a decade of both the Met and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute was established in the wake of the terrible fire that had destroyed much of the city, ‘to show the world that Chicago’ — then known principally as the capital of America’s meat-packing industry — ‘was not just a giant abattoir with open sewers,’ says Rondeau.

‘It is very much a collection of collections... There is a clear sense of the history of Chicagoans and their take on the world’ — James Rondeau

Back then, the collection ran to little more than some plaster casts. But it quickly became a source of civic pride, and the city’s wealthiest citizens soon began to support it. Within a year of the opening of the Beaux-Arts building on Michigan Avenue that has been its home since 1893, Mrs Henry Field, who had married into the Marshall Field’s department store dynasty, had donated a collection of French paintings — by Corot, Daubigny, Millet and others of the Barbizon school — and commissioned Louis Comfort Tiffany to design a gallery to hang them in as a memorial to her late husband.

It’s a gesture that generations of Chicagoan collectors, whose appreciation of art was forged here, have emulated. (It was also here, Rondeau mentions as an aside, that Barack and Michelle Obama went for their first date.)

‘It is very much a collection of collections,’ he says. ‘And you do feel the presence of those collectors. Spend enough time in our institution and their biographies begin to emerge. There is a clear sense of the history of Chicagoans and their take on the world.’

He cites, for instance, the gift of 58 post-war works made in 1997 by the Lannan Foundation, which had been set up by the late financier and director of ITT Corp, J. Patrick Lannan. Consisting of paintings by, among others, de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Sigmar Polke, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Gerhard Richter (22 works, no less), it was a collection of such quality that the museum paid the foundation for an additional 48 works. Hung together, says Rondeau, they reflect the man and his family, too, and the epoch in which they were collecting. ‘You know if something is a Lannan object. It just has a certain feel, a certain world view.’

From left Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Saint Romanus of Antioch and Saint Barulas, 1638. El Greco (1541-1614), The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577-79. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), Saint John the Baptist Pointing to Christ, circa 1655

From left: Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Saint Romanus of Antioch and Saint Barulas, 1638. El Greco (1541-1614), The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577-79. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), Saint John the Baptist Pointing to Christ, circa 1655

Of course, the museum has always actively acquired work as well. Its peerless El Greco, for example, the four-metre-high The Assumption of the Virgin, was bought at the behest of the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt. She had seen it in Paris at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1904, and been struck by its genius.

‘So she went on this letter-writing campaign to American museums to make them aware that this masterpiece was for sale,’ says Rondeau. ‘She wrote to the Met, she wrote to Boston, to Detroit, to Cleveland.’ Working her way west, she eventually got to Chicago. ‘And we said, “Oh my God, we’ll buy it!”’ The Art Institute agreed to pay $40,000, the equivalent in purchasing power of about $1.1 million today, although it took the trustees 19 months to raise the funds.

In the end, Nancy Atwood Sprague, the widow of a man whose death notice described him as a ‘millionaire merchant’, came up with the balance. But there was a further dividend: ‘We formed a relationship with Cassatt and began to acquire her pictures, too’ — 61 works in total, most famously The Child’s Bath.

Chicago’s burgeoning plutocracy was mad for Impressionism and Modernism. In 1913, the museum brought the Armory Show, the groundbreaking exhibition of European avant-garde art, from New York to Chicago, as evidence of its commitment to the contemporary. Soon, its civic-minded citizens were making significant gifts to the museum.

From left Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), On a Balcony, 187879 (detail). Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), The Child’s Bath, 1893. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907 (detail)

From left: Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), On a Balcony, 1878/79 (detail). Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), The Child’s Bath, 1893. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907 (detail)

The businesswoman Bertha Honoré Palmer, who had sat for Rodin and whose husband Potter had opened the Palmer House hotel (now a Hilton), donated 52 paintings by Monet, Renoir and others. Frederick Clay Bartlett presented an astonishing collection of works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Utrillo and Van Gogh, in memory of his wife Helen Birch Bartlett who had died just six years after their marriage. Mrs Martin A. Ryerson gave more than a dozen Monets. And Annie Swan Coburn gifted works by Degas, Manet, Gauguin, Renoir (including Two Sisters) and Monet’s Stacks of Wheat (End of Day, Autumn).

To date, the Art Institute has acquired 46 Monets. ‘And there are another 30 [owned privately] in the city,’ says Rondeau. There is nowhere like it outside France. These collectors had been buying and donating the contemporary art of their time, a trend that continues to the present.

In 2015, Rondeau was instrumental in negotiating Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson’s donation of 44 works, nine of them by Warhol (including Twelve Jackies, Mona Lisa Four Times, Liz #3, two self-portraits and a Big Electric Chair) as well as Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Takashi Murakami, Robert Rauschenberg, Ugo Rondinone and Cindy Sherman, a collection of a combined value lying somewhere north of half a billion dollars. No wonder Rondeau calls it ‘one of the truly transformative gifts in the museum’s history’.

Edlis was nearly 90 when the couple made the gift (he had come to the USA from Vienna in 1941 after escaping the Holocaust, and went on to found the Apollo Plastics Corporation in Chicago in 1965). In making the gift, says Rondeau, he responded to the idea that, in the context of the Art Institute’s overall holding, the collection would be seen not just as a portrait of the 30 years during which the couple had collected in depth, but as a chapter in the story of art as the institute tells it. In making their collection public, they were shaping the narrative. Their judgement and taste have been preserved for posterity along with their names.

James Rondeau in the Art Institute of Chicago

James Rondeau in the Art Institute of Chicago

As with many donations, the gift came with restrictions. The terms of Lindy and Edwin Bergman’s donation of Surrealist works, for example, require the entire collection — of works by Dalí, Ernst, Magritte and Picasso — to remain on view till the death of their last surviving grandchild. ‘But we have a million square feet in our institution, and there’s 6,000 square feet of Bergman Collection, so that doesn’t feel onerous to me,’ says Rondeau. ‘We’re proud of our 40 [Joseph] Cornell boxes.’

The terms of the Edlis/Neeson gift simply required that the works remain together and on show for at least 25 years. As Rondeau points out, their gift means that the Art Institute now has the greatest collection of Warhols of any museum ‘in its peer group’, not to mention Jasper Johns’s ‘largest, greatest target painting’ and two of the best Cy Twomblys: a large painting he made in the Palazzo del Drago near Rome in 1969 and an untitled sculpture that once belonged to Robert Rauschenberg.

Of course, the challenge with restrictions that prevent collections from being broken up is always going to be space, and more than 90 per cent of the Art Institute’s collection is already in storage. Not that out of the public gaze means out of mind or reach. ‘We conserve and we teach from storage,’ says Rondeau, alluding to the School of the Art Institute, one of the USA’s pre-eminent art colleges.

But in order to ensure that its stores do not become overwhelmed, the museum is ‘super-active’, though he hopes also ‘prudent’, when it comes deaccessioning or selling works from its holdings, so keeping the collection dynamic by continuing to acquire.

Cristoforo Stati (1556-1619), Samson and the Lion, 1604-7, on the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase

Cristoforo Stati (1556-1619), Samson and the Lion, 1604-7, on the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase

Rondeau concedes that mistakes have occasionally been made, citing the sale in the 1980s of some paintings by the Portuguese-French painter Maria Helena Vieira da Silva. ‘We unloaded some masterpieces because no one really knew who she was then.’ These days she’s revered as a pioneering European Abstract Expressionist. Fortunately, the Art Institute still has 12 of her works.

There remain gaps in the collection that Rondeau hopes to fill. ‘There is a bit of a structural lacuna for non-American, non-European decorative arts from before 1945. And we’ve been slow to the Russian game, but we’re collecting Eastern European decorative arts and design from the first half of the 20th century within the framework in Europe. But it’s not a sustainable model just to collect into infinity,’ he says.

As a specialist in contemporary art, he also has an eye to the future, talking excitedly of a major survey of work by Barbara Kruger that will open next year, and of the first solo show of the German-born Turner Prize-winner Tomma Abts’s work that ended earlier this year. ‘That was kind of a dream show of mine,’ says Rondeau.

In the two decades or so he has been in Chicago, he has organised more than 30 exhibitions of work by artists such as Shirin Neshat, Thomas Hirschhorn, Olafur Eliasson, Rineke Dijkstra, Marlene Dumas and Roni Horn, and written 13 catalogues. With a staff of 800 and an annual turnover of $110 million to manage, Rondeau’s directorial role now obliges him to be less hands-on when it comes to organising exhibitions.

But working with artists remains part of the pleasure of the job. Theaster Gates ‘guided the new installation of the African gallery’, which opened in February. And there are ‘350 amazing artists’ who also teach at the School of the Art Institute, so there are always artists about.

Georges Seurat (1859-1891), A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884, 1884-86

Georges Seurat (1859-1891), A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884, 1884-86

Rondeau is also mindful of his role as the chief custodian of what he calls ‘a collection of icons’ — works such as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Caillebotte’s Paris Street: Rainy Day, Hokusai’s Under the Wave of Kanagawa and Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — the five that routinely poll best when they analyse ‘dwell time’. That’s museum-speak for how long a visitor stands looking at a work, which is measured by tracking body heat and (though Rondeau swears they cannot identify you) visitors’ mobile phones.

His own buzzes. My time is up. As I leave, I ask what he’d save in a fire. ‘Oh my goodness, you can’t ask me that,’ he replies. ‘It’s like asking me to choose between my children.’ But, ever the raconteur, he has an answer.

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Since it was presented to the museum in 1925, the Grande Jatte, he tells me, has hardly ever left Chicago. But in 1958, it was loaned to MoMA in New York, where on 15 April a fire broke out. An electrician was killed. Monet’s six-metre-long painting of water lilies was destroyed. (Five further works, including another Monet, were badly damaged.) But, miraculously, the Seurat survived unscathed. 

‘There’s a photograph of it outside, in the middle of West 54th Street,’ he says. ‘I’m sure they got [Picasso’s] Demoiselles d’Avignon out beforehand. But in Chicago, the story we tell is that on hearing the building was on fire [the then director of collections] Alfred Barr shouted: “Save the Seurat first!”’

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