Awash in a deluge of
publicity, the Terra Museum of American Art opened its doors in 1987 in
a $35 million, glass and marble faced building in the midst of the "Magnificent
Mile," Chicago's luxury retail strip on North Michigan Avenue.
A booster piece in the Chicago Tribune Magazine called it a monument, a "superachiever's greatest accomplishment." House & Garden quoted Daniel Terra saying, "We're on the cutting edge of the most dynamic surge of interest in American art that this nation has ever seen."
Never wanting to miss a cutting edge, we put the Terra on our list of "must sees" for a recent trip to the Second City. The evidence indicates that Mr. Terra's cutting edge is best suited for butter, so you'd do well to bring something sharper to cut through all the hype. Once you do, you'll find the museum to be a restful oasis between the rigors of Saks Fifth Avenue and the challenges of Neiman-Marcus. Save your serious museum time in Chicago for the newly renovated Art Institute whose treasures never cease to inspire.
Prior to plans for the independent Terra Museum, the Art Institute discussed with Terra the possible acquisition of his collection, but negotiations fell through when Terra insisted on total autonomy. According to the Wall Street Journal, none of Terra's trustees have more than minimal knowledge of art. It is understandable, then, that the Art Institute preferred to forego the opportunity.
Daniel J. Terra is a septuagenarian industrialist whose fortune, made in the manufacture of printing inks, has been estimated at some $350 million. Other Americans who have made more money than they can possibly use have been known to spend the excess attempting to buy immortality. We are grateful for the public largess of the Carnegies and the Mellons. In kindness, we'll leave it to future generations to evaluate the legacy of Dan Terra.
For now, the art loving traveler must wade through so much puffery, promotion, and pure ego, that there is bound to be a letdown in the reality of the Terra Museum. At the entrance to the building, the collection is announced by a prominent sign as "An American Revelation." That would seem to promise new insights and new understanding, but neither was to be found when we visited.
Granted, the somewhat cramped four story exhibition area can display only a small portion of the total collection. You'd think, then, that they would put their best foot forward with a presentation that shows the strengths of the collection, a selection that would offer us a fresh perspective on one aspect or another in the development of American art.
There are some splendid pieces here. The eye is caught by a charming Childe Hassam painting of Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, evoking a smaller city of a different time. Another delight is a John Singer Sargent portrait of an elegantly gowned lady reading, "In a Garden at Corfu." And Mary Cassatt's large oil of a woman and a girl in a rowboat is a knockout.
But, even in this limited space, there is an awful lot of mediocrity - ho hum nineteenth century landscapes and second rate works by artists from whom we have seen better elsewhere. Instead of a tightly focused display that might give the visitor a genuine revelation, we get a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
Then we come to Samuel F. B. Morse's enormous canvas, "Gallery of the Louvre." Terra purchased it in 1982 for $3.25 million dollars, a record at the time for an American painting. He was able to get the painting only after New York's Metropolitan Museum chose not to exercise its prior option. The Terra touts this decidedly peculiar piece as an American icon, attempting to elevate it to a status worthy of a centerpiece for the collection. After all, the Art Institute has Seurat's spectacular post-Impressionist masterpiece, "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte."
Any value the Morse work has is surely historical, rather than artistic. The painter depicts an imaginary display of some three dozen of the Louvre's masterworks, gathered together in one room. His purpose was to educate the American public, to awaken provincial nineteenth century America to the beauty of great art. Terra's enthusiasm for the painting may lie in his own zeal for educating the current generation to the joys of American art.
Morse would have been more convincing if he had created a beautiful painting, rather than a pastiche which does little more for the originals than the post card reproductions so popular in museum gift shops. In a gratifying exercise of good taste, the nineteenth century public ignored Morse's painting and he went on to far more useful accomplishments, such as creating the telegraphic code which bears his name.
In one published interview after another, Terra publicly massages his own ego. To the Wall Street Journal he said, "Ronald Reagan has said that I've done more for American art than any other man in the history of the country. And it's absolutely true." Ronald Reagan playing art historian has about the same level of credibility as Ronald Reagan in the role of tour guide to Beirut.
Terra seems most articulate talking of his new museum in terms of real estate and retailing. "The 245 feet we have on North Michigan Avenue gives us more frontage than any of the big stores on the street," he said to Interview, "I think Neiman-Marcus, our neighbor, has 160 feet." Similar quotes have appeared elsewhere. The pedestrian count on North Michigan Avenue was a factor in the choice of location.
So, the next time you're in Chicago, after you've been to Gucci and on the way to Saks, stop in at the Terra Museum. There will be some fine pictures to see and Dan Terra can add you to his attendance counts. That's just what he intended.