Chicago’s Iconic Museum of Science and Industry Gets a New Name. What’s the Problem?

May 17, 2024

Philanthropy should be appreciated, not condemned

Chicago is abuzz with the renaming of the Museum of Science and Industry to the Kenneth C. Griffin Museum of Science and Industry. Why this is causing consternation is beyond comprehension. Hedge fund manager Ken Griffin provided a gift of $125 million, which the museum calls historic. Unlike the Chicago Bears or the Chicago White Sox, there is no burden placed on the taxpayers. Instead, Griffin provided a gift and is being honored in a way befitting his philanthropic contribution.

Museums are now becoming part of an overall effort, most often seen in business, to rebrand in order to gain more visitors. Though not often discussed, Chicago’s museums have not fully recovered from COVID-19 lockdowns. According to the American Alliance of Museums, under 30 percent of adults attended a museum last year. Ken Griffin’s generosity will allow the museum to revamp existing exhibits and add new displays in the hope of increasing visitors.

But there are those grousing over the philanthropic move by a man who no longer lives in Chicago. A letter to the editor of the Sun-Times written by Johnathan Rivera opens with the following:

“Let’s set aside that Ken Griffin is an ultra-conservative GOP mega-donor who has actively lobbied against increasing taxes on the wealthy. And that he regularly advocates for anti-labor policies in a union town. And that he abandoned our city long ago by closing Citadel’s Chicago offices and selling his high-rise condos. Let’s instead focus on the obnoxious idea that a wealthy man can buy the name of one of our city’s greatest institutions.”

It is obvious that Mr. Rivera has never reviewed the history of the Field Museum. Instead, he, as well as many Chicagoans, have a political animus toward Ken Griffin, evidently, with good reason. Surely, all living in Chicago can see the evil that “ultra-conservative GOP mega-donors” have wrought each weekend of uncontrolled violence and mayhem.

One wonders how Chicagoans compare the Museum of Science and Industry’s name change with two controversial moves by the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC).

In 2021, the Art Institute dismissed all of its volunteer docents because they were too white and replaced them with paid docents of color to underscore its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. At the time, USA Today writer Christine Fernando published the article “A Chicago museum fired its volunteers. Why diversity consultants say it was the right move.”

In her article, Fernando describes the backlash the museum received once word spread of the firings. Overall, however, diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants with no ties to AIC praised the move. Monica Williams of Colorado’s The Equity Project explained the importance of ridding white volunteer docents this way:

“The stories that are told are based on a docents' experience or expertise, which often times comes from a white space and are not reflective of everyone's experience. So we need to really critically think about how stories get told and who tells them.”

To say this point of view is absurd is an understatement. The volunteer docents, who have been the backbone of the Art Institute, do not make up their own histories about the art they describe to visitors. In the same article, Fernando further explained the training given to the docents by the museum included over a year of instruction, which included research writing about the areas of art in which they led tours and continued training afterward each month.

One can conclude, if the docents were seeing art and artists through the lens of being white and privileged, as Monica Williams alleged, then it was the fault of those from the museum who trained the docents. Perhaps its president and all senior leaders need to be replaced by people of color.

Unsurprisingly, a month after the mass firing of the docents made news, employees of the Art Institute pushed to unionize and succeeded in January 2022.

Most recently, however, came a much more controversial move by AIC involving a work by Egon Schiele. An expressionist artist from Austria, Schiele befriended and was influenced by symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. The Art Institute has held Schiele’s Russian War Prisoner (1916) on display since it acquired the piece in 1966. However, AIC is being sued because the descendants Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian Jew and art collector, claim this piece was part of Grünbaum’s collection looted by the Nazis.

Out of a total of eight U.S. art museums holding Schiele’s works, only AIC has retained possession. All other museums have since returned artwork to the Grünbaum heirs. The Art Institute claims to have documentation to prove their acquisition is legitimate and are standing on principle. The outcome of this matter will be handled by a criminal court in New York City; for in a civil court, the plaintiffs lost their case due to statute of limitations.

There appears to be confusion as to the direction of the Art Institute. On one hand, they are immersed in diversity, equity and inclusion mode. On the other, they fight to hold onto an artwork owned by a Jewish collector who lost his life in a concentration camp. Is this a battle the Art Institute should be engaging in as the war wages on between Hamas and Israel? Both decisions are based on public relations in order to gain higher attendance. Even bad publicity is better than none.

Where are the Johnathan Riveras of Chicago to express outrage as to how these disputes are unfolding? Nowhere. Ken Griffin donated over $650 million to cultural institutions in Illinois and over $130 million to Chicago, specifically. There was once a time when the public would praise billionaires for founding and donating to institutions of higher learning through libraries, universities, and museums. Today, we are told they do not pay their fair share in taxes. Yet one billionaire benefactor who uses his fortune for the public good, unlike Bill Gates or George Soros, makes Chicagoans incensed. Intriguing.

Here is an idea: For those who worry our historic museums will be renamed, attend them. If one can afford over $300 for a Taylor Swift concert ticket, it should be easy for families of four to come up with $82 plus parking for one visit to the Griffin Museum of Science and Industry. With certainty, inflation has not hurt museum attendance in the slightest. Even better than a free donation by a conservative billionaire is to raise taxes to help keep our public museums afloat. Museums in Illinois are currently requesting $70 million of tax revenue because, as one can see, that is always the answer to any funding problems in Illinois and Chicago.

Chicagoans griping about the Griffin Science and Industry Museum are the same sort who voted for Mayor Brandon Johnson and lack basic financial literacy. Chicago, its institutions, schools, museums, libraries, etc. are suffering because of a century of poor leadership and backroom deals to the detriment of taxpayers.

Do not look a gift horse in the mouth.

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