Contemporary Collecting: An Interview with James Rondeau

By Adrienne Tarver for Chicago Art Magazine on Aug 03, 2010 in The Specifics of Collecting

Next time you visit the Art Institute, take time to notice the names. If you look up, these names belong to the benefactors and patrons of the arts in Chicago. In fact, if you are paying attention during your visit, you many encounter up to half a dozen names assigned to the various spaces, all of whom have significantly contributed to the museum in one form or another. These names, up high and often unnoticed, silently mark the enormous generosity and gift to the public, who, usually unaware, rarely grasp the depths of these contributions. Both the museum and the public-at-large would have considerably less of an artistic heritage had it not been for the hard work and generosity of these contributors.

With the current exhibit, Contemporary Collecting: Selections from the Donna and Howard Stone Collection, now on view in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago takes highlights from the fantastic contemporary art collection of two of the museum’s greatest contributors.

This exhibition, specifically conceived for the new Modern Wing galleries, is actually the culmination of an ongoing relationship between the museum, the Curator and Chair of Contemporary Art, James Rondeau and the Stones. Donna and Howard Stone have been involved with the Art Institute and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for years in multiple capacities. Their gifts have already graced their galleries for years and there is, of course, the Stone Film, Video and New Media Gallery. The question remains, why mount this exhibition now? And why are shows like this so important to the museum?

I had the chance to have a talk with James Rondeau about the show, the Stones collection and the importance of their contributions to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Who are the Stones and Why do this exhibition now? The Stones have had a long relationship with the museum and the school as well as with you. How long has this exhibition been in the making?

The exhibition has only been in the making for probably about two years but our relationship with the Stones goes back really to the beginning of my tenure which is about 10 to 13 years, something like that.

Howard has been the chairperson of our departmental oversight committee, the department of Contemporary Art; Howard is on the board of the museum; he’s on the board of the school. Donna is on the prints and drawings committee.

So, there has been a very close personal relationship and also a very close institutional relationship.

Where did the decision come from to do this exhibition?

At the museum’s invitation really. There are a number of these shows that you’ll see over the previous couple of years and in the coming years – doing these shows that focus on private collections in a way that really celebrates the philanthropic component of collector’s institutional support.

In other contexts you see collection shows are justified by “oh, well you know, X,Y and Z artists aren’t shown here, we want to show the public this” or “this high profile person wants to do this or work with this artist” but there isn’t necessarily a philanthropic dimension and we really are organizing shows that focus on highlighting how people are supporting the institution so it’s really about celebrating the gift.

Curating a Private Collection

What is the process like going through the collection with the Stones?

Well, with the show we didn’t start from scratch, so having known them over the years I’ve just come to know their collection really well myself. So it was a very organic process, it wasn’t going in and thinking “Oh, how do I think about the collection now that we have an exhibition on the table.” It was just things, you know objects that I knew very well and knew were kind of priority objects. Also because the Stones have been involved here for a number of years, in some instances the collection was actually shaped by institutional priorities.

We would have conversations about an artist or they would know what the museum needed or wanted and so the collection was in some ways formed with institutional priorities in mind. So coming in I knew what was already there, they knew what things might be here – so it was kind of very reciprocal and organic process over the course of many years so when it came time to think about a check list – it was almost, you know you could almost do it instantaneously. One knew. It wasn’t about starting cold and sort of ‘let me look and pick the 50 best things.’ It was something that had almost already formed itself. It was based upon conversations over nearly a decade or more.

Is it common for collectors to have that intention with collecting things – that is, thinking about about where it’s going to go and considering the needs of that institution?

It’s not as common as we like. No it’s not common and part of what we celebrate is the extraordinary excellence of this particular set of circumstances. And it’s not exclusively limited to the Stones either; and it’s not something that we see every day and those kinds of relationships are sort of what we’re trying to celebrate.

There’s also, you know, market place issues – things that are, say in certain instances certain works of art that are only available to a museum and trustees who want to support that artist or be involved with that artist or collect that artist, will often partner with the museum in order to satisfy the artist intent to have the work enter a museum to satisfy their desire to live with – acquire that kind of object.

So they’ve already determined the life cycle of that piece…

Exactly, so often times we enter into a partnership with a collector because the object was destined for a museum and a collector would step up because they would like to be involved or have a part in that some how and so we have this kind of three-way kind of win-win-win situation. So that often happens, but not to the sort of extent that we see with this collection.

Are there any other prominent Chicago collectors who have a similar relationship to the Art Institute or who will also be exhibiting in the contemporary wing?

© Roni Horn. Promised Gift of the Donna and Howard Stone Collection, 2010. G34366″]

Yes. The show after this in our department will focus on the collection of an individual called Judith Neisser, which will open in February of 2011.

Exhibition Highlights

In this particular show and throughout their whole collection, what do you see as their most significant pieces?

Everything in the show. [laughter]

From what I have seen it’s pretty significant stuff.

You know we’ve collected from, as the catalogue documents in the thumbnail section in the back, there are some 237 objects in the collection. So, the 59 that are on view focus on what we think is most important.

That’s not to say that there aren’t equally as important objects that are not on view. There are. But these were about the ones we thought were the most important to highlight in the institutional context, the most important for thinking about the museums own collection; things that we think would hang well together. In two instances where we focused on two artists in some depth – Janine Antoni and Gabriel Orozco – that implicated all the work in the collection.
There was a little bit of back and forth and as we figured out how the checklist would operate in that space and how we might use Griffin Court with the two wall drawings.

We also have works that we consider very much part of the exhibition but not in the Abbot Galleries, and that’s work by Julia Fish, which is upstairs, photographs by Thomas Struth [and] the Tony Tasset pumpkin, which is in Pritzker Garden. So we figured out ways to move beyond even the confines of the Abbot Galleries. Pierre Huyghe is in the film and video. There is a work by Joe Scanlan that’s also in the Stone Collection, which is being projected outside the photo galleries. So thinking about quality, thinking about institutional need and thinking about space.

Ellsworth Kelly's Red Diagonal, 2007 Oil on canvas, two joined panels 84 1/4 x 109 3/8 x 2 5/8 inches © Ellsworth Kelly. Promised Gift of the Donna and Howard Stone Collection, 2008. G30642

Was there a difference to the experience of putting together the catalogue where the audience gets to see inside the home and putting together the exhibition where everything is in the public sphere – was there a different process involved?

One thing we thought a lot about when you do these kinds of shows is what you say – what it means to transfer from a sort of domestic setting to an institutional setting. That often implies a change in scale. Often art galleries or museum galleries are bigger than homes. Not always – sometimes they’re smaller. There’s a change in scale usually – whether it’s big to little or little to big.

And also there’s a very different approach to how one hangs at home with furniture and decorative art objects and livable space and all the things that are intended with the home and then the kind of clean objective reality of an art gallery. And often times you see things that could look great in an apartment of home setting but when they actually make that transition from an institution they, you know, they don’t look as grand or they can’t hold up.
We thought a lot about that in our selections and I don’t think that happened at all here. If anything the Stones were sort of collecting, as I said, with an institutional scale in mind – and I think those things really helped. There are a number of things in the show, for example, that were never installed at home because they didn’t have the space – I mean, video installation, the large Cady Noland sculpture, you know, things that couldn’t really fit in a home but they knew they wanted to have as part of their collection. So we thought a lot about that from the domestic to the institutional and we feel really happy about the outcome.

Seeing private collections in people’s homes of this caliber – have you noticed a trend or specific ways that people tend to incorporate contemporary artwork into their home?

No, what I think is important and nice is how everyone’s vision is different. I think I would always try to go – always try to understand what is unique or different about each collection rather than to try to understand the commonalities. You know there are certain interests in major artists that may be common – you know, someone like Gerhard Richter, or someone like Roni Horn or Fred Sandback, I mean you see those kinds of things happen. Often in Chicago we are gratified to see in some cases where our exhibition program might shape collecting – that if we bring an artist to the city or say the Renaissance Society brought an artist to the city, you see the impact of those kinds of shows and you have a kind of density of collecting around a particular artist as a result of exposure in Chicago. So you see those kinds of commonalities but … those are common sense overlaps instead of anything that would be sort of trend based.

Promised Gift of the Donna and Howard Stone Collection, 2010. G34153″]That’s a good question. I feel like I’m going to say no, but it can’t be true. I mean it’s something that I do… I mean working with collectors in their home, it’s something we do so often that on a scale of things that might be – it’s just that I think I’m accustomed to so many kinds of possibilities that – at this point that I don’t… (laughter).

You know what’s nice though is that often I can be surprised by the quality of something that’s unknown to me. I mean, that’s really the best kind of surprise, where you kind of turn the corner and you see a work that’s come to the city that is extraordinary. Those are the best kind of surprises. And often times we’re lucky that we get to be involved in those kinds of transactions and other times people, of course, find things perfectly that are on their own and you encounter them in a home setting and you’re so pleased to see the kind of quality of good work in the city. But surprises in a shocking or negative way, no.

Changing the Collector Persona

We have talked about the philanthropic side of presenting a collection. Do you see this exhibition changing the persona of the collector or having a larger impact on the Chicago art community?

I don’t know. I think this is a little bit new to us. I mean, this is the first time that I, as a curator, have worked on an exhibition like this. A couple things – One: I think in some ways it often changes the way the collector thinks about his or her self. I know that the Stones have always been proud of what they’ve accomplished and have a clear sense of their accomplishments but I think it does – seeing things that have been very personal and again things that are private in one’s own domestic setting – seeing them transferred to an institutional – to see a kind of legacy gift I think, it’s surprising. It’s really becomes, ‘Wow, all those years have gone by and this is what I’ve ended up with.’ You know, there’s a kind of a sense of self-discovery I think that often happens I think when collectors make these kinds of gifts or allow these shows to happen.

And then you know most importantly we like to be house pride a little bit to show the city, show our peers around the country if not around the world that this is a great city, great things are here, there are incredibly generous people here. It’s a little bit of bragging in the best possible sense about our city, about our museum, about the kind of quality of our relationships.

And then one always hopes that one can lead by example and that is really ultimately what these shows are about – leading by example. That one can say that there’s this wonderful model in place for how a great collection can come together and how great collections can impact a public institution so we think, in an ideal world, someone else might come along and say, ‘Hey! I’d like to be a part of that, I’d like to do that, I’d like to become a collector’ or ‘I am a collector and I’d like to get involved.’ Again, that we can lead by example. Those are the ways that we think about changing one’s own perception or what the possibilities for supporting the museum.

Albert Oehlen

We see the names on the walls, but often the public is unaware of who these people are. Is there anyone else on the walls in the Art Institute that you think are willing to come forward? How do you see the reaction of the donors and collectors who do give significant contributions to putting themselves out there to the public?

Well, every name that you see is the result of an extraordinary relationship between the institution and those individuals and an extraordinary act of generosity. Always, there’s so much more behind the name on the wall than just some sort of recognition protocol. I mean, it sounds overstated, but it’s really not. There’s something profound that underlies all of those kinds of relationships and name spaces. So if their name is on the wall there is already something extraordinary that’s happened between the public sector and a private act of generosity of philanthropy.
But I think within the support community of the museum – the museum family, the board of trustees – in many instances, what’s going on in terms of the collecting and gifting is known to people and in other cases not known at all. And so, I think for example something like the Stone show, their peers in the city have known well what’s happened with the collection and have known what the plans have been. And in other cases they meet someone who they’ve known for a long time on the Board of Trustees or something else and there was no sense of the depth of the quality of the collection or of the generosity behind the gift. So, again, it’s this sort of leading by example that is so important.

Collector’s collections from a different perspective

Was putting together the exhibition from the Stone’s collection a collaborative effort?

No. It wasn’t collaborative. I mean, they’re good friends and of course we had many conversations but what I think is important about these shows too is that for better or for worse, one sees the institutional stamp. One sees the kind of institutional authorship – that’s not about giving over institutional space to a private collector. It’s about the museum recognizing that collection and trying to make sense of it somehow.

And I think that they enthusiastically understood that whatever interest or works that there might be, that they’ve been able to do for years – it may be interesting to see it through someone else’s eyes or again, through that sort of institutional lens.

So, I think it’s precisely about not having the individual do it themselves and collaborate but about letting something else take shape around it. So it’s bound to be different and at it’s best you see things in a different way or see things new and I think that’s part of the exercise.

What was there reaction to seeing it for the first time all put together?

There was never that kind of reveal moment because they came many times so it was always sort of a gradual process of seeing it. But I think when it was finished it was very emotional again, in the best possible sense. … For us it’s been a model because often working with private collection shows it can be fraught with all kind of pitfalls and drawbacks and in this case it was just, um…the whole way round things worked in the most ideal way.

I noticed a majority of the didactics state “Promised Gift” – are those works to become a part of the museum’s permanent collection after the show ends?


Is that something that was the emotional part of the reveal or the opening of the exhibition? Negatively or positively

Well, certainly not negatively. There are 59 works in the exhibition – 50 of them have been designated as promised gifts and they join …I think 42 existing promised gifts made or say the last decade, independent of the show. And again, that’s what the show is about. It’s not about – not necessarily creating the gift, but recognizing this generosity. So the gifting component is a huge part of what we’re trying to showcase. It’s no coincidence that the gifts that are there are the focus really. I think that’s an enormous part of their pride in the exhibition – that ultimately this is not about them; it’s not ego driven or biography driven. The gifting component really shows that it’s about the institutional growth, institutional advancement about the sort of philanthropy advancement.  I think that’s central and I think seeing that is the reason the show is there. In many ways, I think seeing [the exhibition] is an enormous source of pride for us and hopefully for them too.