In light of the Elmhurst Art Museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary, executive director John McKinnon touches on all three of the museum’s core ideals—art, education and architecture—from their commitment to exhibiting work by Midwest contemporary artists, to the McCormick House by Mies van der Rohe that brings architectural tourism to the town, to extensive educational programming that has inspired audiences for two-and-a-half decades. “Some towns only have an art gallery, an education center, or a historic home,” he says. “But we have all three at the museum.” He’s rightfully proud. On to the next twenty-five!
As the Elmhurst Art Museum turns twenty-five, can you talk about its contribution to the local community, as well as the art and design community?
We’re proud to have consistent art, education and architecture programming going back to 1997. We have a deep investment in local arts education, a focus on art from [the Chicago area], and an investment in modern architecture because of the museum’s McCormick House by Mies van der Rohe. Through solo and group exhibitions by Midwest contemporary artists, we hope to tell topical narratives and local stories that have a larger reach, such as last year’s show about civil rights and the Chicago Freedom Movement. Additionally, our newly renovated Education Center is a learning hub that makes the organization come alive with free public programs, year-round classes, summer camps, docent-led tours, and engaging activities at community events like the upcoming Art in Wilder Park. Lastly, we are the only contemporary arts center in the United States with a Mies-designed home, which brings architectural tourism to Elmhurst and provides us with opportunities to showcase mid-century design, host new site-specific displays by artists, and examine unrealized prefab plans by the architect created for the western suburbs.
All three of the museum’s core ideals—art, education and architecture—are often activated through the museum’s exhibitions and programs. For instance, during an internationally traveling exhibit celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Bauhaus, our Teen Art Council created a geometric ballet with costumes and we facilitated design workshops with local schools.
Since 1997, the Elmhurst Art Museum has inspired its community through art, education and architecture. What are your biggest priorities and in what ways have they shifted since the beginning of your appointment to this position and during your tenure?
When I started at the museum, one of the biggest priorities was to separate Mies van der Rohe’s McCormick House from the main building. This milestone not only allowed visitors to appreciate the full exterior design for the first time in nearly twenty-five years, but it also strengthened the museum’s identity. We’ve since expanded on themes around architecture, from a full domestic presentation of mid-century-inspired decor to several teen workshops. Similarly, we sought to better establish the museum’s education programs through renovations to increase our visibility and capacity. We’re currently expanding a number of education and outreach programs—the biggest of which is co-presenting Art in Wilder Park which brings over 8,000 people to our museum campus.
My hope is to showcase what makes the organization unique. Some towns only have an art gallery, an education center or a historic home but we have all three at the museum. Looking to better communicate this three-part identity, we refined our messaging through a new logo and website… And then COVID hit… The last two years have definitely included unpredicted adjustments and adaptations, but I believe we’re emerging as a stronger organization. We’re ready at the moment to not only talk about what we’ve done the last two years, but how we’ve inspired audiences for two and a half decades!
What defines a true career milestone for you?
It’s hard to pick just one single milestone—especially while looking back at nearly two years of COVID. But, I’m incredibly proud of the bonds we have all forged together at the museum between our staff, local artists, patrons and partner organizations. Together we’ve all supported each other. I’m especially thrilled when I know we’ve made an impact. I love getting messages from our supporters about new artwork they saw or a memory we shared together. For instance, it could be Hebru Brantley’s latest project, a new installation by Luftwerk, a tour they remember by Suellen Rocca, or a note about visiting Mies van der Rohe-designed apartments as a group.
What does the future hold for the Elmhurst Art Museum? What are you most excited for in the next twenty-five years?
Throughout our special twenty-fifth anniversary year, we will have three distinct seasons. Our spring season will focus on the 1933 House of Tomorrow and the architect’s innovative legacy, in the summer we will have a wealth of education offerings, and the fall will feature artwork by our founder Eleanor King Hookham plus the first solo museum show by Sentrock. It’s difficult to predict the next twenty-five years of the organization. However, in the future, others might reinvent art, education and architecture in ways we didn’t predict with new media, new educational practices, or wider definitions of those core concepts. We expanded our core idea of “architecture” numerous times in the past few years. Beyond just the physical style of a building, we’ve also examined how people live and where they live—as seen by our show about race and fair housing.
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