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Who Owns the Museum?

Rachel Hewitt

Art Institute of Chicago

We recently addressed the physical requirements of starting a museum in the post “What is a Museum?”. This inevitably leads us to wonder about the museums already in our community, whose locations and real estate history we may take for granted. Who owns the art museums in Chicago?

In Chicago, a number of museums are a part of Museums in the Park. MIP is a coalition of museums whose collections and history are varied, but they all have one thing in common. They are all located on Chicago Park District land. The museums of MIP work with the Park District, the City of Chicago, and the State of Illinois, as well as other entities to provide programming, particularly educational programming. It is important to be clear that none of the museums are owned nor operated by local, state, or federal government, and their collections are not subject to any government oversight.

Both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art, along with the National Museum of Mexican Art, are members of MIP, and as such are located on Park District Property. What does this mean?

The Art Institute of Chicago’s main building was built on City of Chicago land in 1893. The authority over the property and the building thereon was transferred to the South Parks Commissioners in 1903. When the Chicago Park District was formed in 1933, it inherited the land and the building. Interestingly enough, the Art Institute of Chicago remains offset from its MIP compadres in one way. Because it was originally situated on municipal land, and under the jurisdiction of the City of Chicago, the museum is still technically under ordinance to offer 2 1/2 free days, per week, something that Chicago Alderman Ed Burke would like to see reinstated. You can read more about this here and here.

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s history is a little bit newer and involves growth as well as relocation. How exactly does a museum move? Certainly not using a U-Haul and a few buddies.

The MCA was originally conceived as a modern complement to the Art Institute and opened in 1967 in a tiny space, just a few blocks South of its current home. Originally envisioned as a Kunsthalle-style space for temporary exhibitions and projects, the MCA began amassing a permanent collection (which was not a part of the initial mission) and expanding into neighboring spaces until it had gotten too big for its digs. In 1991, the museum’s Board of Trustees contributed a large portion of the construction cost to build a new home for the MCA and brokered a deal with the Chicago Park District for the museum to move to its current location at 220 East Chicago Avenue.

MCA Chicago

I played a little game of “what if?” with the MCA’s Karla Loring, and asked her what would happen if the MCA should ever decide to relocate. She chuckled at this a bit, but explained that, in theory, the MCA’s Board of Trustees would facilitate the move on the museum’s end, but the decision would really be based on the Chicago Park District – as the museum is located on their land. The Board of Trustees and the Park District would have to broker a new deal.

If the quest is simply to find out who facilitates a move or sale, and who facilitated the original move, the answer is also relatively simple. The MCA’s Board of Trustees, which obviously exists in flux, has a committee that negotiated contracts and facilitated the construction and development of the current location, and would negotiate any future projects of that nature. The Board of Trustees is responsible for the oversight of the museum, which is executed by the museum management on a daily operational basis.

So, the main art museums of Chicago are on Chicago Park District land, and from a real estate standpoint, are owned by the CPD. What does this mean? Do they also own the buildings the way you own both your house and your yard? Yes and no. Because it is not the CPD who generally pays for the construction, renovation and development of the buildings themselves, there are complicated contract negotiations and deals brokered between the CPD and the museums’ representatives, the Board of Trustees in the case of the MCA, and presumably in the case of the Art Institute as well, which determine the physical identity of the museum.

Now that we have a general idea of what a museum is physically, and who owns the real estate of the museums we’re most familiar with, in upcoming articles, we will explore the less tangible aspects of Chicago’s art museums’ identities.