Modern Art's Grand New Home

The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art reopens with a flourish and 3,000 new members

As Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) prepared to reopen as the nation's largest contemporary art museum, its new building - designed as "a dialogue of transparency and confinement" - attracted some unexpected guests.

Songbirds flitted into the imposing main entrance, flew straight through the museum's open core, and darted out the opposite side over a vista of Lake Michigan.

Some of the winged visitors strayed off course, however, trapping themselves in the closely confined galleries. "That was not so cool," recalls MCA director Kevin Consey, whose staff raced around after the birds with nets.

The new museum's contrasting mix of breezy openness and secluded containment, though trying for bird-catchers, works well for art connoisseurs.

The $46 million, 220,000-square-foot, four-story structure opened to the public last week. Despite its grand scale, the museum's design is deliberately modest so as not to "interfere with the visitor's ability to concentrate on art," says its award-winning architect, Josef Paul Kleihues. He has been a leading figure in the rebuilding of Berlin since the Wall came down.

Indeed, from the outside, the square, classically proportioned building of Indiana limestone and textured aluminum panels is reminiscent of the austere American minimalist art of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. This style is well represented in the permanent, contemporary (also known as post-World War II) collection.

"I view austerity as a good thing. It is an important aesthetic component of American and international art," Mr. Consey says. "I don't believe buildings have to be warm and fuzzy to be good buildings."

Up a sweeping, black granite staircase, the visitor crosses a glass faade into an airy main lobby. Visible on the opposite side of the building is a bright restaurant that opens onto an inviting, terraced sculpture garden overlooking Lake Michigan.

Proceeding down the central hallway, visitors are drawn into quiet, cloistered galleries with unadorned white walls and concrete floors where they can meditate on the art itself.

The museum's inaugural exhibition, "Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives" (July 2 to Oct. 20), lends itself to such acetic contemplation. The exhibit explores how 10 contemporary artists strived for religious or other forms of transcendence through art.

Thoughtfully presented by chief curator Richard Francis, the exhibition begins with Ad Reinhardt, whose delicate, black-on-black paintings hide faint cross-shaped forms. Known as the "black monk" for his solitary life in the studio, Reinhardt compels the viewer to look beyond mere descriptive images and reflect on his paintings.

A more simple spirituality emanates from the lined, pencil-on-canvas works of Agnes Martin. With a soothing lightness, Martin's works seem aimed at achieving, in her words, "that which takes us by surprise - moments of happiness - that is inspiration ... it is an untroubled mind."

The exhibit, which emphasizes connections between modern art and ancient religious traditions, also includes paintings by Francis Bacon and Joseph Beuys and the neon-sign art of Bruce Nauman.

Another strong feature of the exhibit is a well-scripted audio tour narrated by actor John Mahoney. The tour is self-designed, and therefore flexible and unhurried. By entering numbers onto a keypad, the viewer can select descriptions of various works in any order at any time.

In four upper-level galleries, a 75-piece show entitled "In the Shadow of Storms: Art of the Postwar Era From the MCA Collection," focuses on minimalist and surrealist art as well as works by Chicago artists. Less thematically cohesive than "Negotiating Rapture," "In the Shadow of Storms" offers a broad overview of much popular modern art, including works by Alexander Calder, Bruce Nauman, Donald Judd, Franz Kline, Ren Magritte, and Andy Warhol.

Beyond the exhibits of visual art - painting, drawing, sculpture, video, and installations - the new MCA aims to incorporate the latest in performance art, such as new music and dance.

"What is very interesting for us is to integrate exhibitions with performance with a similar emphasis on each," says Consey. Boasting a 300-seat theater with ground-floor catwalks, the MCA is one of only two major modern art museums in the country equipped for fully staged dance, theater, and musical performances, he says. (The other museum is the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, he says.)

The MCA is also appealing to audiences of all ages with a broad educational program, including public lectures, workshops for teachers, family events, after-school programs, and even early- morning sessions in the Chinese exercise tai chi.

Other amenities are a large bookstore, museum shop, and outdoor dining. Details such as men's and women's restrooms equipped with diaper-changing tables and child-height facilities also make the MCA more accessible.

Finally, the museum's staff has undergone training to "increase its sensitivity to the needs of visitors, not just the collection," Consey says.

These features should help the MCA increase membership in line with the near tripling of its annual budget to $11 million in fiscal year 1997 from $3 million in 1995, when it was still housed in a one-story renovated bakery. A membership drive last month was highly successful, signing on 3,000 new members to reach nearly 8,000.

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