Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Brooks McCormick Bequest

Two kinds of people run American cultural institutions: the wealthy, blue-blood philanthropists -- and the arts management professionals whom they hire.

And Brooks McCormick, whose collection just came to the Art Institute, was about as blue-blood as it gets in Chicago.

On his father's side , his great-grand uncle was Cyrus McCormick who invented the mechanical reaper. On his mother's side, there was William Deering, whose agricultural equipment company merged with the McCormicks in 1902 to form International Harvester.

Both families gave extensively to the Art Institute.

Brook's uncle, Cyrus McCormick Jr., was a trustee of the Art Institute in the early decades -- and he was later joined on the board by Brooks' father, Chauncey McCormick, who served as trustee from 1925, and then as President from 1944 --- until his death in 1954 -- at which time Brooks became a trustee himself until his retirement in 1986.

Might one say that the Art Institute was something of a family business ?

It looks like Brooks will be the last McCormick to be in the museum business -- as he was the last McCormick to work in International Harvester. He was CEO in the seventies, and soon after, the company stopped making agricultural equipment, changed its name to Navistar, and started making trucks. An era had ended.

He also served on the boards of First National Bank of Chicago and Commonwealth Edison (our local Gas company), the Chicago Community Trust, Rush University Medical Center, the Chicago Urban League, and the Chicago Campaign for the United Negro College Fund.

But I'll bet that his real love was for riding horses on his estate -- and he was benefactor to many environmental causes, both locally and in Australia. He assembled an enormous collection of rare books about birds -- the proceeds of its recent sale being donated to the cause of bird loving.

But what about art ?

Was he really that excited by it ?

Given his resources and connections -- and looking at the following collection that he gave to the museum upon his death --

I'd say he'd rather be hunting foxes than collecting painting and sculpture.

Matisse, 1938

This is a late piece (Matisse was 70)
and although it's nice,
it feels a bit generic to me.

like something that was just tossed off,
while working up something more ambitious,
like this "Music" done in 1939.

Actually -- I think this looks
better as a small reproduction,
because the surface quality of the much larger original
just isn't there.

This is more like graphic art,
it should have been a print.

Giovanni Boldoni (b. 1841) portrait of Lina Cavalieri

This feels like a quick sketch,
and it would be perfect
for the lobby of an opera house
(Calvalieri was a famous soprano)
where people will be walking past it
as quickly as it was painted.

But it doesn't survive a longer look.
It's dull and ordinary.

J.S. Sargent, portrait of Madame Escudier

On the other hand,
this is very exciting painting
by a very young painter (Sargent was 26 at the time)

It's kind of rough,
the tones and often the drawing
aren't quite right,
but it's so exciting,
as he holds those extremes
of daylight value
into the deep space he's creating.

This belongs in a room filled with Sargents,
either in a special exhibit,
or on permanent display
(Sargent is very important to contemporary
traditional painters -- he should have his own room)

Cezanne "standing bather" 1879-82

Accompanying notes tell us that
this was cut from a larger composition
like this one from 1890.

This one is a nice little painting,
and I think Cezanne gets into trouble
when he adds more figures.

But still,
this is something that belongs in
an art museum in Rockford or Peoria,
not Chicago.

Degas, Horse with Jockey 1870's

This is the kind of piece that
really infuriates me,
because there were so many good sculptors in that era,
and in the 70 years that followed,
while Degas didn't even intend
to make this work public --
it was an aid to his pictorial design.

Is it nice ?
Yes, it's nice,
Degas could draw ---
but how about looking for
people who could sculpt ?

Degas 1876, pastel over monotype "cafe concert"

A not especially attractive scene
of people doing
not especially attractive things
(these are Johns picking up whores)

it's a slice of life,
and it belongs in some
kind of thematic show or
Degas retrospective,
but I think it's headed
for the museum basement.

Manet, 1882 "man with dog"

I'll bet that Brooks loved dogs
(to run beside his horses)
and a dealer probably made him
a very happy man when this
was showed to him.

It's a nice little sketch,
but let's face it,
it's not very exciting,
and another piece that's
either destined for the basement
or should be.


And that's it.

A modest collection of safely acceptable
modern art C. 1900,
the sort of thing that Brooks' grandfathers might
have used as stocking stuffers.

I don't think he cared much one way or the other.

And now,

I've found this precious quote,
from his father, Chauncey, back
when Mrs. Frank Logan,
wife of the former Vice-President of the museum,
complained about the painting
which received her annual "Logan Award"
given by the Art Institute in 1935:

"We are merely trying to let the public see
what is being painted in the United States today.
A newspaper doesn't endorse murder
when it prints the news of a murder."

Do you get that message ?

By 1935,
the wealthy civic leaders who were
running the Art Institute
were no longer responsible for the
moral or spiritual quality of the
work being shown.

Mrs. Logan and her rich, conservative friends
needed to start their own museum
of contemporary but traditional art,
and the shame is that they didn't.


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