Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art

By Christine O’Donnell

Larry Fields speaks at Chicago’s MCA

I had the honor to visit Chicago’s MCA on its 50th anniversary weekend back in October of 2017, which allowed me to discover a new exhibition during a milestone, enjoy the We Are Here anniversary exhibition, and enjoy a talk by high-profile art collector Larry Fields. Fields discussed collecting art, how the essence of any museum is its collection, and visiting museums in general.

Alexander Calder - Orange Under Table - Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art
Wandering the galleries and taking in art from Alexander Calder’s Orange Under Table, c. 1949. (above) to Amanda Williams’s Chicago is Iraq? (below), there was something new and fascinating to see around every corner.
Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art - Amanda William - Chicago is Iraq
Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art - Amanda William - Chicago is Iraq

Art Talk by Collector Larry Fields

A highlight of my visit was hearing Larry Fields, a prominent Chicago art collector, as well as a generous donor and board member of the MCA, speak.

He presented a few pieces that he and his wife have donated to the museum. In turn, Omar Kholeif, Senior Curator and Director of Global Initiatives at the MCA engaged in an informal question-and-answer session with Fields. (Kholeif has since moved on and is now the Director of Collections and Senior Curator at Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), in the United Arab Emirates). Together they discussed, amongst other topics, Glenn Ligon’s works and the concept of collecting in general. Fields stated,

“Collecting is a way to understand the times and world you’re living in.”

This concept, that to collect is to comprehend one’s world, brings up a whole suite of questions, including the fact that colonialism felt similarly: to collect was to understand. Is it in fact necessary to acquire pieces of others in order to fully comprehend them? Is that truly what motivates Fields (a desire to understand) or is there a broader wish to support worthy artists who are searching to make meaning from their own experiences?

The Meaning of a Museum’s Collection

Despite any questions regarding the motivation behind the collection, many of Fields’ comments stayed with me. He talked about how the “DNA” of any museum is its collection. Luckily, many museums have realized that their collections are too white and too male. Such a collection often feels exclusionary to large (non-white, non-male) portions of the population, who end up feeling like museums aren’t meant to serve people like them. Luckily, many art institutions seem to be moving towards more diverse exhibitions, with inclusive themes, although long-term results on exhibition and collecting practices will only be known in the decades ahead when data can be properly analyzed.

Larry Fields collector at Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art
Larry Fields, holding Ed Ruscha’s book, standing in front of Four Untitled Etchings, by Glen Ligon.

How to visit Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art

For all visitors, Fields wished to inspire increased engagement (rather than merely walking by the works of art) He suggested selecting at least one piece of artwork during each visit.
While he didn’t give any pointers on how to more closely engage, here is my usual practice for doing so:

  1. Read the museum’s wall label, paying attention to the title, materials, and year and noting whether the artist was a man or woman.
  2. Stare at the piece for 30 seconds to one minute, letting my eyes go in and out of focus.
  3. Approach the piece from different angles. Or walk around it, if a sculpture.
  4. See where my eyes are drawn and think about whether the artist may have been trying to make my eyes go in different directions.
  5. Finally, get up as close as you are allowed and see if you can figure out how the artist created the piece.
  6. If inspired, think about what you feel when looking at the piece and whether it brings any emotions to your mind. What do I think the artist may have been trying to say?

Bring Kids to Museums

Field encouraged parents to bring their children to museums. Only by bringing children will we have a future audience for museums –children need to be exposed to art and culture (in many ways, including in museums) when they are young.

Ed Ruscha - Make new history, Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art

Ed Ruscha “Make new history”

Field’s final thoughts were inspirational and forward-looking. Discussing the book he had held throughout the presentation – Ed Ruscha’s Make New History as pictured above (essentially a 600-page blank book) – Fields presented the concept of “making one’s own history,” and how each of us does so every day. Fields encouraged the audience to dream big and forge ahead with our unique histories in the making…

Christine O'Donnell Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art

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