In the Business of Art

The best art collection on campus is also the least publicized, as it’s housed in an unlikely place. The Booth School of Business–known less for its artistic ventures than for its history of turning out successful CEOs–is home to over 300 works of art by approximately 75 artists.

“When we moved into the building, there was a sense we would do something,” said economics professor and art director Canice Prendergast referring to the business school’s occupation of the Rafael Viñoly-designed Harper Center. That “something” turned out to be a collection of contemporary art. Prendergast was joined by Suzanne Deal Booth, contemporary art director of the Art Institute James Rondeau, Rennaisance Society director Suzanne Ghez, and UofC alum and art collector Dean Valentine to seek and select the art.

The committee travels internationally, from Los Angeles to Switzerland, to find new and exciting works. They operate democratically, selecting pieces by vote. “Everybody’s had their feelings hurt,” Prendergast laughed. “I suggest what I think is the best thing since sliced bread and everyone says no, it’s terrible, and I kind of sulk for a bit.”

He doesn’t sulk for long. Big names in contemporary art grace the walls–Andre Butzer, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Hanne Darboven, to name a few. The collection’s burgeoning esteem, as well as the clout of the committee members, gains them access to increasingly rare and high-end art. “There are certain artists where demand far exceeds supply, so you basically have to make a case to the gallery,” Prendergast explained. “It took us a while to get to that stage, but now people know we’re a serious collection.”

The collection has caught the eye of galleries in New York. A work by Anna Shteynshleyger currently sits on loan in the International Center for Photography. In the past, the New Museum and the Irish Museum of Contemporary Art have also loaned pieces from the collection. The Booth School also has an agreement with the Smart Museum to lend out any piece at their request.

The unusual set-up of the collection, which is scattered throughout the building, gives the committee unique parameters within which to work. They have to appeal to a much wider audience, one that is not necessarily educated in art. “We are mindful of diversity on every level–medium, scale, subject matter, gender, geographic points of origin, etc.,” Rondeau said. The committee toyed with adopting a specific theme for the collection, but decided to leave it open-ended to avoid narrowing the scope of the work.

Certain motifs do inevitably crop up, connecting the works: the photographs, in particular, exude political messages, almost in response to their business school surroundings. Globalization, imperialism, cultural clashes, and industrialization are but few of the issues represented. For Prendergast, this complements the education at Booth, urging students to think broadly about the world.

Many of the photographs have a wry attitude toward their political subjects, like Tacita Dean’s “The Russian Ending.”  This series of photographs places handwritten stage directions above gruesome images of explosions, deaths, and shipwrecks, a jab at the practice of lightening the endings to Russian films so they’re easier for American audiences to handle.

Another series by Cao Fei focuses on Chinese teenagers who don the bright costumes of Japanese anime characters, acting out scenes in front of drab skyscrapers and overpasses. Other works deal with African independence, the endangered tenets of democracy, and industrial Germany.

The collection’s paintings are far more abstract than the photography. Prendergast jokingly admits that, although this wasn’t anyone’s intention, there are very few figurative paintings in the entire collection. The conceptual nature of the art, according to Prendergast, mirrors the conceptual approach to education at the university.

Prendergast hopes to integrate the collection with the rest of the university, and especially with DoVA.  He plans on inviting art classes to view the pieces,and aspires to create a series of podcasts to guide viewers through the collection. Currently, visitors can pick up a brochure at the front desk that highlights certain works on each floor.

For now, the collection remains largely unknown to much of the university. Booth students and faculty are certainly aware of the collection–one researcher in the Becker Institute professed that trips to look at the art were a nice break from her windowless office. However, this much could not be said about the undergraduates studying in the lobby of the Harper Center itself, who were surprised to hear of the collection that, unbeknownst to them, was all around.