Art Institute Opens Modern Wing With 26 Events Over 10 Days

To mark the debut of its modern wing, the Art Institute of Chicago hosted 26 events in 10 days, each targeting a different demographic.

By Jenny Berg May 21, 2009, 11:19 AM EDT

The Modern Wing Opening Gala

Photo: Troy Kuane

Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing Opening Events
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One of the most anticipated openings in recent Chicago history—and, it should be said, a pretty big deal in the art world at large—the Art Institute of Chicago's new modern wing, a 264,000-square-foot structure housing works from artists such as Pablo Picasso and Jeff Koons, opened to the public  Saturday. At 9 a.m., a civic dedication drew masses to a closed-off section of Monroe Street, where the building's architect, Renzo Piano, spoke and guests got a free tour of the structure. For museum staffers, and for their production partners at TBA Global, managing the public opening was just one task of many surrounding the building's debut. 

“We did about 26 events within 10 days,” said Linsey Foster, the museum's director of constituent relations. Each event brought a distinct target audience to the new wing. During the events' 18-month planning process, “we had very much interest on the part of our trustees and [museum president and director] James Cuno to give all of our different constituencies a chance to celebrate this building,” Foster said. Along with the museum's traditional visitors—teachers at the School of the Art Institute, donors, and members, for example—“we wanted to welcome people that were new to us,” she said. “Because really, it is a building for the city of Chicago and for the citizens of the world, who come here and want to experience the collection that we have.”

The 10-day string of events began on May 6, with a party for museum staffers in the new wing. Each employee was allowed to bring a guest, which brought the cocktail fete's head count to 1,200. “We normally don't have guests come to our staff parties, but we sort of blew this one out,” Foster said. “Everybody worked so hard and for so long on this project. Our board of directors and James Cuno thought it was important to allow people to bring a guest to show off what we had been working on. So the party was a real treat.”

According to Foster, treats for the events' staff were an important priority for her throughout the planning process. “I knew that I needed to be mindful of positive reinforcement,” she said. “It was a lot of work, and people worked overtime and went above and beyond the call of duty.” To keep morale high, Foster treated senior staff to monthly cocktail hours and “would always bring in encouraging comments from everyone at our operating meetings,” she said. “I wanted to make it as positive an experience for everyone as possible, and I think it really showed. It made for great energy at every event.”

The staff party was followed by happenings that included a preview for the students and faculty of the museum's school on May 7, an exclusive Modern Wing Opening Gala, hosted by the Art Institute's women's board, that drew nearly 1,100 guests to the museum on May 9, tours of the museum for 600 public school children on May 11, a cocktail party for local education professionals later that evening, three days' worth of free tours for members of the museum, and a private dinner for artist Cy Twombly—whose work will comprise the first exhibition in the modern wing's Abbot Galleries—on May 14.

Where the planning team could, “we layered our events,” Foster said, pointing to the Cy Twombly dinner as an example. Members of the Pritzker family, which donated funds for the museum's Pritzker garden, attended the private dinner. “We had the right people in the room, so we thought the dinner was a great time to hold the dedication of the garden,” she said. 

Friday, May 15, began a period that “was referred to internally as party-palooza,” said Foster. That afternoon, a press luncheon invited editors from international and long-lead publications to tour the modern wing; later that evening, a private cocktail reception for 1,500 representatives of the art world, such as painters, dealers, and museum leaders, preceded the late-night Young Modern event.

Occupying the modern wing and its adjoining Regenstein galleries from 10 p.m. till 2 a.m., Young Modern drew some 1,500 guests—not all of whom fit the traditional model of young and modern. “We had a wonderful age range,” said Foster, “people from 21 to 85 were sticking around all night. I ran into artists in their 70s who were hanging out near the DJ booth and having a great time.”

Foster said that holding a multiple-bar-equipped, dance-music-fueled bash at a museum filled with priceless art presented some predictable challenges. “Our main responsibility is to be the keeper of treasures that should be seen for generations and generations to come,” she said. ”So it was challenging to get conservation departments on board with hosting such a large-scale event.”

Along with stocking bars with only clear liquids, the museum loaded up on security as well as drop-trays and tables. “We really wanted people to go through the galleries,” she said, and since cocktails weren't allowed in those spaces, “we needed enough physical tables to allow for people to easily put their drinks down.” To keep guests from feeling hesitant to leave behind a cocktail, “we needed to ensure that there were never lines for drinks.”

In the end, Foster said, proper delegation was instrumental in juggling 26 events. At the beginning of the planning process, about 12 members of the museum's staff were working on various facets of the opening events; by the end, 25 had come on board. 

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