Overlooked No More: A Foundation's Push to Elevate Chicago Art

The modern wing of the art institute of chicago. photo:  luca85/shutterstock

The modern wing of the art institute of chicago. photo:  luca85/shutterstock

New York has long been considered the center of American visual art, home to the Met, the MoMA, and the incredible, cylindrical viewing galleries of the Guggenheim. Abstract Expressionism developed in the city, as did the careers of its luminaries such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. A new crop of art-world superstars blossoms in the city each year.

More recently, Los Angeles has entered the collective art consciousness. In the past five years, major gifts in the hundreds of millions have remade L.A.’s cultural landscape into a Monopoly board of arts institutions. The Broad and the Marciano Art Foundation opened, and new galleries and acquisitions are planned at the Hammer, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Art makers themselves, fleeing the high cost and low light of New York City, are basking in L.A.’s spectacular, Mediterranean-like sun.

What city is missing from the conversation? Chicago.

For most of our country’s history, the art world, and the cultural conversation more broadly, have been dominated by the institutions and thought leaders on the coasts. But the values and experiences of those living in one region differ from those in another. Ignoring the contributions of the Midwest’s main city, and the third-largest metropolis in the U.S., means missing out on the perspective and talents of everyone in the middle—and failing to understand the role played by Chicago’s artists and art institutions in the nation and the world.

The Terra Foundation for American Art is working to change all that. The Chicago- and Paris-based foundation is dedicated to building international awareness of historical American art. Businessman, art collector and U.S. Ambassador Daniel Terra launched the foundation 40 years ago, and the organization currently gives about $12 million a year globally to share American art, place it within the international context of art history, and spur conversation about it from multiple perspectives.

Terra Foundation has long given about $1.5 million a year in arts grants in Chicago. In 2012, Terra launched Art Design Chicago, a citywide initiative aiming to bolster a local, national and international meditation on Chicago art—basically, to foster the foundation’s goal of cross-cultural dialogue, but specifically within the Windy City, and about it.

“We wanted programs that would show how art helps us understand the city’s history as a destination for migrants and immigrants, and as a place for manufacturing,” says Terra Foundation Program Director Jennifer Siegenthaler, discussing the types of projects funded in this initiative. “We also wanted to know what ideas were happening in art and design nationally and internationally that flowed into Chicago and shaped the culture here, and what ideas originated in Chicago and flowed out.”

With Art Design Chicago, Terra continues to fund ongoing projects in the city while directing most of its Chicago-based funding toward this new, consolidated effort, investing $6.5 million so far.

The increased funding allowed researchers and curators plenty of time to dig around. Terra funded earlier-than-usual exhibition planning and even projects still in the conception stage. “A lot of the stories that the institutions wanted to tell were about artists or groups of artists in Chicago that haven’t been told before. There was no body of research for the curators to draw from. They had to do a lot of digging in archives, conduct oral histories, and visit with living artists and collectors,” says Siegenthaler. “We wanted to produce lasting research that would make a contribution to American art."

Now, after a handful of years of research, conversations, convenings and curation among the city’s arts leaders, Chicagoans can see the results. More than 60 cultural partners will mount dozens of exhibitions and offer public and academic programs throughout the city in 2018. Terra has also funded research that will be published in scholarly publications, and backed traveling shows of Chicago art.  

All told, Terra has given more than 70 grants so far to 55 cultural organizations, and expects to fund more in March. Though the exhibitions began in January, there will be a concentration of activity in the summer and fall. One highlight is an upcoming exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago on Charles White, an important figure in the black Chicago Renaissance. The show opens in June, then travels to the MoMA in New York, followed by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2019.

Terra also reached out to other funders to participate in Art Design Chicago, an unusual move for the foundation, and one that brought resources to large and small institutions, and groups it hadn’t previously funded. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and one of the initiative’s goals is to get people out of their own ’hood and into other areas—up to the lakeside Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, across the city to the National Museum of Mexican Art on the West Side, down to the DuSable Museum of African American History on the South Side. “We wanted to work with organizations that reflect the diversity of Chicago,” says Terra’s Executive Vice President Amy Zinck. “We had not funded the South Side Community Art Center, a WPA art center created by African American artists, still standing in its original site, and a very dynamic organization. The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art is another example of a new grantee.”

As this initiative shows, grants that actualize a community’s goals can have long legs. As Zinck puts it, “When a funder can partner with a community and really align goals, that can resonate and create something sustainable, a longer runway for organizations to build and to share with audiences.”

Terra’s broader efforts to bring American art into the conversation outside the U.S. are working, as evidenced by a steady uptick in grant requests from overseas. “In our first years of funding, only about 10 percent of requests came from outside the U.S.,” says Zinck. Today, about three-quarters of grant proposals for exhibitions come from international institutions, often working in conjunction with U.S. institutions. The current Jasper Johns exhibit at The Broad in Los Angeles started at the Royal Academy in London, with funding help from Terra, for example.

The Tate Modern in London put on a landmark exhibition of African American art, called Soul of a Nation. But bringing it to the U.S. was tricky because of the cost. “The Tate applied to us for funding, and we talked to them about what it would require for this to travel to the U.S. We were able to give them funding that helped it come here. It now has shows slated at the Brooklyn Museum and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas,” says Zinck. “Traveling shows are so expensive, so our funding is a reason some shows can travel.”

Still to be seen: Will there be a surge of interest outside Chicago for projects involving Chicago’s art and design? And will it come from other under-appreciated art communities around the country and the world?

To see the schedule of exhibition go to artdesignchicago.org.