In my nearly 30 years at the Art Institute, seven as its president and director, I have been guided by the fundamental conviction that works of art carry unique, often transformative powers.
As a primary, tangible record of human creativity, art transmits our thoughts, beliefs, values, and abilities. It structures the ways in which we see and understand the world. A direct interaction with an artwork can reassure, energize, teach, and challenge us—intellectually and emotionally. It can serve as a catalyst for connection and exchange, for expanding our understanding of our collective past, present, and future.
As one of the world’s leading art museums, the Art Institute of Chicago offers exactly these opportunities. We serve as a site both restorative and invigorating, encouraging solitary encounters with individual objects while also fostering collective experiences and growing communities.
This is why the words of one of the Art Institute’s earliest leaders, Charles L. Hutchinson, remain our guidepost to this day: “We are here to serve the public, not the few.” As much as we aim to further scholarship and care of our world-class global collection, we give equal attention to ensuring that the broadest audiences possible can experience these collections. We are committed to continually developing inventive and meaningful ways to share our collections with our Chicagoland community and the world so that all feel welcome, engaged, seen, and reflected in our galleries.
Just as we are a place for the many, we too are a place of many, a site activated by the tremendous talents, wide-ranging expertise, and thoughtful efforts of outstanding colleagues throughout the museum, including exceptional senior leaders. Together we are able to create dynamic galleries and landmark exhibitions, develop engaging programming and innovative storytelling, carry out groundbreaking research and revelatory conservation initiatives, and foster ever-growing civic partnerships. I feel incredibly fortunate to work alongside this team to advance the museum’s mission.
I also feel fortunate to spend a great deal of time with our collection. While our collection is permanent, we change, and the meaning and inspiration we glean from the range of human imagination and ingenuity inherent in these objects changes with us. I invite and encourage you to visit the Art Institute galleries for your own unique and ever evolving experience, as you encounter old favorites anew and new works that strike a familiar chord in novel and provocative ways.
President and Eloise W. Martin Director
About the President and Director
A visionary leader and renowned curator, James has made the museum his professional home for nearly three decades, dedicated to advancing its mission to connect visitors to world-class global collections in fresh, innovative, and relevant ways.
Since his appointment in 2016, James has led the museum through periods of tremendous reflection, evolution, and growth.
He has supported pivotal acquisitions across all curatorial areas, appointed renowned scholars to lead eight of the eleven curatorial teams, and overseen the transformation of galleries devoted to the arts of the Americas, Egypt, Sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Europe, and South and Southeast Asia. James has also pioneered the museum’s role as a profoundly civic place of gathering and is a dedicated advocate for training and mentorship programs for students from historically underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in the arts.
James began his time with the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998 as associate curator of contemporary art. From 2004 through 2016, he served as Dittmer Chair and Curator of Contemporary Art and defined the museum’s internationally respected collection of global contemporary art—one that continues to grow in size and regard. He led the installation of this collection with the opening of the Modern Wing in 2009, and in 2015 he realized the largest gift of art in the museum’s history, the Edlis | Neeson Collection, a transformative addition of 44 post-war artworks. James has also organized and contributed to a host of critically acclaimed exhibitions and installations and raised the museum’s profile as a leading presenter of emerging and lesser-known artists.
In addition to lecturing and publishing widely, James has also been awarded many professional honors and has served on various advisory councils and boards, including as a board member of the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and as the commissioner and co-curator of the US Pavilion at the 49th Venice Biennale featuring artist Robert Gober. He has served as a mentor for the Center for Curatorial Leadership and as a visiting faculty member at the University of Illinois, Chicago and Northwestern University. James earned his bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and a master’s degree in the history of art from Williams College.