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Chicago Tribune
"Art: Signs of struggle and understanding"
August 25, 2002
Section - Pg -
Author: Alan G Artner
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Art: Signs of struggle and understanding

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001/2002.

At 8:45 p.m. on a Friday in July, spotlights for a film being shot in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art illuminated a scene that proved deceptively gratifying. At first notice that the museum soon would close, visitors began exiting in a stream that did not significantly abate until well after the hour.

All those people in a museum at the start of a weekend in the middle of summer! At the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris that would be a matter of course. But such reaffirmation of the drawing power of art in Manhattan, 10 months after the terrorist attacks? Surely everything was back to normal.

Well, no, it isn't. Since Sept. 11, attendance has been down at the Met by 1 million visitors, and only by cost-cutting in every department has a projected $20 million deficit been reduced to $7.5 million. This has been quite a change at America's largest art museum.

Outside New York, results varied. The Art Institute of Chicago's "Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South," the blockbuster exhibition that opened less than a fortnight after the attacks, attracted just under 700,000 visitors, 100,000 fewer than projections. But annual attendance at the Museum of Contemporary Art was up by 12,000, and May saw the highest number of visitors since the building opened.

Tourism has, of course, been down, but it has proved impossible to separate the impact of 9/11 from the general state of the economy. Representatives of the Travel Industry Association of America say no one knows when foreign tourists are coming back to the United States. TV host Otto Deppe -- known as the Walter Cronkite of Germany -- told a staff member at the Institute that, despite terrorists, everybody would be back as soon as the Euro tops the dollar.

For the first three months after the attacks, transporting art from museum to museum became more difficult because of changed airline schedules, but travel is again easier. On the other hand, borrowing works of art for public exhibitions is expected to become more difficult. And even if no one wants to predict the increased risks of art traveling, insurance rates certainly will be higher.

The nature of art museums has not, however, changed.

"A museum is a stabilizing institution in a community because of what it does," says Institute Director James Wood. "A great and broad art museum fosters interest in and toleration of other cultures; it can transcend the immediate political reasons for learning about those cultures and, in fact, help us understand their complexity."

But what of other institutions?

Early this year the Illinois Arts Alliance asked state arts organizations to report their fiscal health and outlook after Sept. 11. Forty percent said foundation and corporate giving was down from last year while at the same time constituents were asking for an increase in programs.

"Our research tells us that since Sept. 11, people have been drawn to the arts in greater numbers," says Alliance director Alene Valkanas. "Corporate and foundation giving may be down due to declining assets, but arts organizations are reaching out through special appeals to individuals who value what they offer. And they are optimistic they'll be successful, more so than other non-profit organizations polled in a similar survey."

Such institutions, large and small, already have shown art shaped by 9/11. The best of it, such as "Time Left," a video installation by Michal Rovner at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is not "about" the attacks yet indicates a changed awareness. "Everything around us affects us," says Rovner. In her case, the degree of suffering she saw from her home near Houston Street was abstracted and transmuted into a piece of universal import.

"I have not observed a notable shift in artists' practices in response to this event," says Elizabeth Smith, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. "But a couple of works stand out to me that manifest effective and appropriate responses. One is a print by Tony Fitzpatrick [commissioned by the MCA and sold in its store]; the other is the drawing installation by Raymond Pettibon at this year's Documenta [in Germany] that mirrors the inchoate frustration and anxiety so many of us have felt."

To combat that anxiety, New York artist David Greg Harth has stamped dollar bills with the phrases "I am not terrorized" and "I am not afraid" before putting them back in circulation. He has written, "The terrorists struck lower Manhattan, the financial capital of the world. I choose money as my medium to attack back."

For many artists, though, there has been another, less noticed response.

"Joel Meyerowitz is a friend," says Wood. "As a photographer and a New Yorker, he immediately felt he had to exercise his craft. So he used his art to record the events of last September but did not use those events to make art. That, I think, happened a lot. It is still a period where you have to digest."

Copyright 2002 Chicago Tribune