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A Different Kind of Blockbuster

As the director of public affairs here at the museum, one of my tasks is to give tours to various VIPs who want to visit the Art Institute. I could tell you who some of them are, but then I’d have to kill you. No, well, actually, we do try to respect the privacy of the bold-face names that come through our doors. But a visit this week from a VIP was so inspiring to me that I just can’t help but write about it.

This visit was scheduled for me by a colleague, and, when I saw it on my calendar, I had assumed that the VIP was interested in the highlights of the museum, as most visitors are—Seurat’s A Sunday on the Grande Jatte, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Picasso, Matisse, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Mondrian, Pollock, O’Keeffe (yes, I recognize these are all Western “modern” paintings, but with 10,000 works on view the “highlights” definition by necessity is limited). I hadn’t actually spoken to the VIP about what he wanted to see or even how much time he had to spend here. I knew only that he was a film director who had made many high-profile big-budget movies with A-list actors (trust me, you have seen at least one of his movies).

We met at the appointed time and place, and I then put the question to him of what he wanted out of his visit to the Art Institute. He told me simply that he was looking for creative inspiration and wanted to learn about revolutions and breakthroughs in the visual arts. He was hoping that, by discussing the qualities of particular works, he would have a better sense of what made it worthy of a place in a museum such as the Art Institute and thus what risks have been taken in a particular medium. His goal was to help himself think about where was going. “I know I can ‘do’ Hollywood,” he said. “But I am really thinking about how I can do what I do better.”

What followed was a three-hour roam (such a luxury!) through the museum, across centuries and continents, in which we discussed artistic conventions and how they are continually demolished and rebuilt. We talked about revolutions in subject matter, composition, use of color, frames, paint handling. We talked about Baroque art and conceptual art; we talked about Freud and ritual objects; we talked about Gothic cathedrals and James Joyce. The visit, for me at least, was exhilarating. He was engaged and engaging. But perhaps most importantly, I witnessed firsthand the kind of power that a collection like the Art Institute can have to influence not just other visual artists but millionaire filmmakers looking to keep their work fresh, even within the strict conventions of popular movies. This VIP visitor gives me hope that new formulas are actively being made by thoughtful people in the highest reaches of the entertainment industry, with art from centuries past as their inspiration.

Thomas Struth. Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago, 1990. Restricted Gift of Susan and Lewis Manilow.