Ghez: Creating More Space Can Swallow One's Energies

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Susanne Ghez is director of the Renaissance Society, an independent center for contemporary art on one floor of a building at the University of Chicago. Since she took it over in 1974, it has won an international reputation for cutting-edge programming. Yet she's had her doubts about parlaying that reputation into an expansion.

In 2002 or so, we were in long-range strategic planning. And there were people -- supporters and board people -- who felt that we should look into doing our own ground-up building. So we hired some consultants to go out and talk to the board, the longtime supporters, artists and colleagues from other art organizations, to see how they felt. And it was really fascinating: The resounding import of the study was that we should protect at all costs our program, and all these people thought that it could be at risk by doing a building.

Now we're talking relatively small figures here: $15 million, or something like that. But still, for us, that would have been a stretch. A lot of focused energy would have gone in that direction. You'd become so involved in fundraising, and that becomes the carrot that leads the donkey and the cart. I never wanted to go down that path: You'd lose all of your energies in the wrong areas.

Personally, it would be a wonderful creative process, to work with creative architectural talent. But you would lose your focus: Your focus would become the building, rather than what's in the building. What is the function of a building? What do you build it for? For what is going inside it. What's important is the exhibition program.

We can question our assumptions about art: We can confound them, dismantle them and rebuild them again. With a new building, you would be less inclined to take risks, for fear of jeopardizing your funding.

As we try to expand our audience -- and we do this in a number of ways, though we'll never of course be able to be anything like MoMA -- the essential is to preserve the core values, and the standards of excellence and intelligence which I think are at risk when you're worrying about all these other things: a new building, space. Are we going to see more, better, more intelligent, more thoughtful works because there's more space? I don't think so. Huge spaces: How much can you take in at a time, in a visit?

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