Chicago's Terra Museum Closes

Citing a failure to draw crowds even after effectively eliminating its admission charge a few years ago, the Terra Museum of American Art, one of Chicago's most ambitious if underappreciated art institutions, has closed its doors, the New York Times reports.

Last year, the trustees of the Terra Foundation for the Arts, which runs the museum (as well as another in Giverny, France), decided to close the foundering institution and place its entire collection of 350 works on paper, plus 50 of its most important paintings by American masters, on loan with the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute will show the Terra holdings, including treasures such as "Gallery of the Louvre" by Samuel F. B. Morse and George Caleb Bingham's "Jolly Flatboatmen," beginning in April.

Marshall Field V, chairman and president of the foundation, acknowledged that public indifference had made the trustees' decision easier. The Art Institute attracts more than 1.3 million visitors annually, while the Terra Museum, located within a mile of the institute, drew only about 85,000. "I didn't feel that the vast majority of Chicago really gave a damn one way or another," said Field.

Daniel J. Terra, who died in 1996, was the son of Italian immigrants who made his fortune in printing inks and photographic chemicals. His collection, amassed over fifty years, focused on American Impressionism and the Hudson River School. Unfortunately, his museum, with only 8,000 square feet available for galleries and no parking lot, lacked the space needed to become a major presence on Chicago's cultural scene.

According to museum director Elizabeth Glassman, who will remain with the foundation, closing the Terra will free up about $4 million a year of the foundation's assets, enabling it to expand its research, educational, and fellowship programs in Chicago and internationally. In addition, by combining the collections of the Terra and the Art Institute, Glassman told the Chicago Sun-Times, "we're able to accomplish something we could never have done on our own — namely the presentation of American art that will be tops in the world."

Not all Chicagoans agree. "Having everything under the roof of the Art Institute is not a good thing," said Edward Lifson, host of Hello Beautiful!, an arts series on public radio station WBEZ. "To me this is a huge blow to the ego of the city. If Chicago can't support a museum for American art, that's embarrassing."

James Yood, a Chicago-based art critic, shared that sentiment. "When it comes to art museums, you never get addition by subtraction."

David Bernstein. "A Museum in Chicago Is Closing Its Doors." New York Times 10/30/2004. Misha Davenport. "The Art of Saying Goodbye." Chicago Sun-Times 10/28/2004.