The State Meets Contemporary Art

Building Chicago Move Ontario Street Women

The museum's Chicago Avenue location was acquired after a three-way negotiation between the State of Illinois, the National Guard, and the MCA.

The way we actually got the site was as complicated three-way transaction between the state of Illinois and the National Guard. It's more convoluted than it's worth telling, but our ability to get the site was dependent upon our ability to find a place—to help the state find a place for the National Guard to relocate because the current site was the site of the National Guard Armory. And the state wanted to give us the land, but they couldn’t until the National Guard was happy that they had a new home.

We happened to have an art storage faculty not far from [the] Bears' stadium that we offered to the state, to the National Guard. It had been donated to us by R. R. Donnelley. We were using it for art storage and so it came to pass that the generals looked at the site and found it to be to their liking. And so there was sort of a three-way swap. The National Guard got our property that we donated to the National Guard and the state gave us the National Guard's Armory property in exchange for this 99-year lease.

But through all these transactions there were countless, countless meetings with officials from the state and officials from the National Guard. And we would host these in our old building on Ontario Street. And so these officials from the state government would come and the generals from the National Guard would come. And our art is contemporary and often the themes are explicit. And there was a Tom Czarnopys sculpture that as you came down the stairwell to the office area, it was a statue of a person with sort of a tree where the genitalia would be kind of growing out. It was just you walked around the corner and he sort of jumped out at you. And anyway, the generals walked down and we thought they were gonna grab their guns.

And in the conference room, because we didn't have enough storage space for the art, many of our finest works were in the conference room. And so there was a Francis Bacon piece. It's a magnificent piece in our collection. And it's of this man who seems to be beside a desk and in the stance it looks like just the ultimate corporate angst. He looks like he's just ready to explode. And another Lucas Samaras of knives. And so they would go by this Tom Czarnopys with his tree genitalia and then they would come into the conference room and they'd sit down with these very violent, aggressive but exquisite works of art. Oh! And there was a—oh, I'm gonna forget the name of the artist. Oh my god. There was another very explicit kind of crazy piece in the conference room.

And we were negotiating with these people, and the generals I'm sure were seldom in spaces where they didn't feel that they were in complete command. But they were quite I think unsettled by this. And here we are, these innocent museum people negotiating these multimillion-dollar leases, and we manage to just completely disarm the generals. But I don't think they'd ever negotiated with women before. I was the deputy director and Helen Dunbeck was the head of administration and they kept saying, "Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am. Yes, ma'am." And anyway, ultimately they were delightful to be with. But I guess probably my favorite parts were this interaction with the National Guard and the state meets contemporary art in ways that at the time probably had never happened before.

Illinois National Guard’s Chicago Avenue Armory. Photo © MCA Chicago.

Illinois National Guard’s Chicago Avenue Armory. Photo © MCA Chicago.

Tom Czarnopys, Untitled, 1984. Oak and maple bark, poplar branch, and acrylic paint and matte medium on plastered gauze; 66 3/4 x 21 1/2 x 48 in. (169.5 x 54.6 x 121.9 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, restricted gift of MCA Collectors Group and Illinois Arts Council Purchase Grant, 1985.16. Photo © MCA Chicago.

Tom Czarnopys, Untitled, 1984. Oak and maple bark, poplar branch, and acrylic paint and matte medium on plastered gauze; 66 3/4 x 21 1/2 x 48 in. (169.5 x 54.6 x 121.9 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, restricted gift of MCA Collectors Group and Illinois Arts Council Purchase Grant, 1985.16. Photo © MCA Chicago.

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