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PRINT March 2004

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James Cuno

SOME GUYS HAVE all the luck. Or if not luck exactly, then a sense of moment about them, so that all eyes turn in their direction when opportunity comes. This is certainly the case with James Cuno, 52, who was appointed in January as the new director of the Art Institute of Chicago, replacing James N. Wood after twenty-four years on the job.

Cuno’s moment has come often enough lately that he managed to use the same quote twice about himself in little more than eighteen months. In response to a reporter’s question in June 2002 as to why he was leaving his eleven-year directorship of the Harvard University Art Museums (comprising the Fogg, the Sackler, and the Busch-Reisinger) to take on London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, he told The Guardian: “This was by no means an easy decision but the directorship of the Courtauld was an opportunity I could not pass up.” Just a year and a half later he was at it again, remarking to the Art Newspaper about his most recent move, “While my time at the Courtauld has been far too short, the call to Chicago was just too great an opportunity to pass up.”

A fuller account of Cuno’s departure from Harvard would have mentioned that he spent the previous five years at work with architect Renzo Piano on a plan for a new museum compound on the banks of the Charles River that was ultimately run aground by community groups. “I’d been there for a long time, did a lot, and expended a good deal of political capital,” Cuno said recently. “What changed was a project that was imminent and likely to proceed and now was neither. To take it further was going to be a long haul, and I would have to be in for the duration.” By all accounts, Cuno left Harvard a better place. He added thirteen thousand new artworks, created a new department of modern and contemporary art, overhauled the conservation center, enhanced the staff, and doubled the operating budget to nearly $20 million.

Yet for Cuno, the Courtauld’s call seemed opportune indeed. Founded in 1932 and known as one of the world’s leading undergraduate and graduate programs for Western art, the Institute was at a momentous crossroads: It was loosening its ties with its parent, the University of London. Striking out to become an independent college (though still affiliated administratively with the university), it raised a fledgling $33 million in pledges for its adventure. A celebrated fund-raiser, scholar, and former president of the American Association of Museum Directors, Cuno arrived in January 2003. His energy and ambition ran high in London. He quickly founded a research forum, began to reorganize the administration, brought a gallery established with Russia’s Hermitage State Museum under the Courtauld’s aegis, and built a development office to professionalize fund-raising. Courtauld professor John House praised Cuno. “There is a lot of energy at this point. From our point of view, he’s been very dynamic and engaged us well,” House said. “And he’s a fantastically quick learner.” Yet some at the Courtauld were enjoying the popular English pastime of American-bashing. One senior art-world figure in London, who asked not to be identified, said that the announcement of Cuno’s move to Chicago was met with “a sort of limited hysteria of excitement and pleasure. He just didn’t translate to the English-European culture at all.”

Cuno’s knack for quick study will be useful when he lands in Chicago in September. The scale of the operations he will soon take on is impressive. From the Harvard museums’ annual attendance of around 131,000, he will greet 1.4 million visitors at the Art Institute. From the Courtauld’s endowment of about $40 million, he will soon be at an institution with some $600 million in investments. Wood, the Art Institute’s outgoing director, acknowledges Cuno’s tasks ahead, saying, “We got pounded in the last few years, and unless you’re wildly optimistic, there’s going to be a real challenge. Jim’s going to have to raise a lot of money.” Court papers filed in Dallas indicate that the Art Institute may have lost most of $43 million in hedge funds gone bad, and that is less than a third of about $125 million in losses since 2000.

Still, there’s the sweet irony that Cuno left Cambridge without his Piano building and will now oversee the construction of one at the Art Institute. He has long advocated that museums throw aside the Krensian distractions of puff and dazzle so that visitors can “undergo a radical decentering before the work of art,” as Cuno writes in the recent book he edited, Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust. In conversation he reiterates what many think is a rearguard view that the work alone, without theory or social apparatus, is all that is crucial: “The museum can be, rather than an intersection of world and debate and politics, a space into which one steps from the street and has an altering experience.” In fact, when asked what the role of the Art Institute will be, with its twenty-first-century Piano addition, Cuno says, “I don’t think there is anything particularly twenty-first century about the museum’s role. It’s more to recover the core purposes from the temptations of glitz and drama that perpetuated throughout the 1990s; to remind ourselves of the importance of building the collection and preserving these objects for all of time.”

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.