THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
By Tom Mullaney
The Terra Foundation of American Art is a major art philanthropy that is probably unknown by most Chicagoans. One reason may be that it funds primarily museums and art activity rather than artists. It is what remains of the ill-fated Terra Museum of American Art, which opened in Evanston in 1980 and relocated to North Michigan Avenue from 1987 until its closing in 2004. While it boasted a respectable art collection and mounted some very worthy exhibitions, it failed to generate a high degree of public interest.
The Foundation is the success the museum never was. Its mission now is to foster greater appreciation in other countries of American art created between the 18th Century and World War II. Its grants help mount museum exhibitions that promote greater study and preservation of American Art’s value throughout the world, including scholarly research. Its CEO, Elizabeth Glassman, calls the foundation a “museum without walls.”
Terra recently announced that it made $11.4 million in grants during the 2016 fiscal year and distributed more than $80 million to 30 countries since its founding in 2005. It funds one in four of the requests it receives. In the Chicago area, Terra, over the past five years, has made 24 grants to local exhibitions totaling $2 million.
Glassman has been an ambassador (befitting her early educational background in international relations) on behalf of American art created prior to World War II. “We look at art as an opportunity to create a dialogue. We use it as a jumping off point to reach audiences about the nature of their own national culture.”
Terra has funded 800 projects in 30 countries to date. Yet, unless you are aware of its sponsorship of many Art Institute and worldwide exhibitions, its art collection of approximately 800 works and its operation of the American Museum of Art in Giverny, France, its identity remains a mystery.
However, throughout 2018, Terra will take a giant step toward making its presence felt in Chicago more strongly. Last month, Terra announced a year-long initiative, Art Design Chicago. In partnership with the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Terra will present a celebration throughout 2018 of Chicago’s legacy to American culture in art and design via exhibitions, hundreds of public programs, scholarly publications and a four-part documentary.
Ms Glassman addresses the crowd at the Cultural Center announcing Art Design Chicago on April 4th.
“We are blessed in Chicago to have long been the home to major art schools, art libraries, art museums, public art, and artists. And yet, the story of many of the city’s contributions has not been well researched, documented, or integrated into the larger national and global narratives. Through Art Design Chicago the city’s important role will finally receive the attention it deserves,” said festival co-presenter, Richard H. Driehaus of the Driehaus Foundation. “Our plan,” Glassman explained, “is to explore what makes the visual culture of Chicago distinctive.” Late last year, I sat down with Elizabeth Glassman, its president and CEO, who has run both the museum and the foundation since 2001.
EG: We decided (once the museum closed) that we wanted to be a museum without walls and that our mission should be to take our collection and story out to the people and not just for the people who came to us.
Dan Terra was appointed by President Reagan to be the cultural ambassador. He really believed in the power of art to express our national culture.
NAE: So, by taking the art further out, that is how you got involved in the mission of underwriting and giving support to exhibitions of American art.
EG: We decided that, instead of spending our money on bricks and mortar, we would animate that mission through a foundation. And what we do is make grants for exhibitions, teaching fellowships, publication fellowships and travel grants for curators. We focus our grants on anything that has the capacity to expand our mission of advancing American art.
EG: On October 31, 2004, we closed the Terra Museum. And our first grants were started in 2005. It was a new form but with the same mission. I’m a very strong believer in donor intent. Dan Terra wanted people to know about American art both in Chicago and around the world.
We use our collection to model the complicated and interesting exhibitions that we’d like to see happening or we use it to springboard a larger exhibition. For example, last year, we did a big exhibition with the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the Pinacoteca in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The subject was “Landscape Paintings of the Americas from 1850 to 1950”.
It was American art in a larger context of a global dialogue about what landscape painting means in all those different cultures. Another way we use our collection is we have an ongoing partnership with the National Gallery in London where we do an exhibition every 18 months in which we contribute some of our collection.
NAE: What was this conversation on culture you had in Paris in early 2017?
EG: So, Michael Shapiro wrote a book containing interviews with 10 museum directors. We decided since there are five exhibitions on American art up in Paris this season (“we funded four of them”), we wanted to sponsor a program.
NAE: When the museum opened downtown in 1992, I feel there was a perception that American Art was not as noteworthy or needed. It was looked at as maybe not as important as the European masters. Through your work and your funding, how would you say American Art has grown in stature?
EG: When we started our program in 2005, we had maybe 10 or 15 percent of our grant requests from non-U.S. museums. Ten years later, we now have maybe 60 to 70 percent of our grant requests from museums outside America organizing exhibitions on American art. And we only fund projects up to 1980, so we are not just talking about contemporary art.
I feel there’s a huge increase of interest in American art throughout the world. It has to do with a couple of things. One is a real interest in learning about American culture. Another is that curators from around the world are coming here to secure loans, to travel and when they see works by (Winslow) Homer and (Thomas) Eakins and (Marsden) Hartley, they think “Why have I not seen this artist in my country?” So, I think it’s a matter of rising familiarity.
Another thing I find is that people are interested in art that tells a national story. We’ve done several large exhibitions in China and what the Chinese art historians talk to me about is “How do we articulate our story and how do they articulate theirs?” A Hallmark of the Terra approach is that we don’t just export exhibitions. We get non-U.S. curators to write about and be involved with the shows.
NAE: Does the foundation add to its collection?
EG: Oh yes, yes. Last year, we bought a gorgeous painting by Arthur Dove and then we bought a Jacob Lawrence and a Romare Bearden. Those are in a show right now in Paris. We lend about 30 percent of our collection at any given time. We have 40 paintings at the Art Institute and paintings in Australia.
Recently, we announced a large gift to the Archives of American Art. In 2005, when we started, we asked “How can we make resource material available to scholars around the world?” So, we gave two 10-year grants, totaling $10 million, to the Archives which are available on the Smithsonian’s website. I believe we’ve given a total of $12 million to the Smithsonian museums.
NAE: In the last 10 years, it seems like your network of institutional partners, like the Ashmoleum and others, has also blossomed.
EG: We both are what we call proactive where we go out and we lend our collection or organize shows together. Say, if I’m in London, I meet with all the major museum directors and I say “Are you working on any American art shows because we could help you with that?”
And, as we have gotten so much more well-known, people have come to us. In 2015, we conducted an attendance survey at all of the shows that we funded and it’s more than 24 million people. When we had the museum, we might have had 150,000 or, sometimes, 200,000 visitors in a year. Now, we’ve impacted many more.
NAE: If someone says to you, “Elizabeth, you are so wedded to the foundation and we know you eat, sleep, think of the Terra Foundation.” What are the two or three things that give you the most personal feeling that you’ve made a difference?”
EG: I worked for many years for Dominique de Menil, who started the Menil Collection. And Mrs. De Menil, who was very wealthy, was someone who believed that her capacity to make a difference was not a right but a responsibility.
I feel incredibly privileged to work with my board and my incredibly talented staff to steward all of these projects around the world. We have a saying at the end of our mission statement: “We believe that art has the power to distinguish cultures and to unite them.”
Before I decided I wanted to be an art historian, I wanted to be a diplomat. I’ve always been a believer in the power of international conversation to create peace and the capacity to understand each other.
NAE: It seems like a wonderful confluence of events that you, who wanted to be a diplomat, have been working for a man who was a diplomat and had the same vision of what art could accomplish.
EG: Yeah, really. It’s very gratifying to hear other people talk about their national story and how do you tell that story in Russia or China. Also, we have a lot of teaching fellowships—in London, Oxford, Paris, two in Berlin, two in Beijing, Spain. And when these professors visit us or talk about their experience, they tell how gratifying it (telling their national story) is to them.
Tom Mullaney is the Senior Editor of the New Art Examiner. He has followed the activities of Terra both as a museum since 1987 and as a foundation since its earliest days.
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Elizabeth Glassman, President and CEO of the Terra Foundation of American Art