Great Lakes and Upper South in the News: "Stained glass museum closing at Navy Pier" from the Chicago Tribune
In a dimly lit Festival Hall at Navy Pier, two movers gently hoist a stained glass panel from a display case with gloved hands and pack it into a crate for safekeeping until light can shine through it once more.
Many of the display cases at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows are now empty. All 143 panels — depicting landscapes, nursery rhymes and historic moments — are being plucked from their containers as art conservationists work to close the offbeat museum by mid-October ahead of a renovation at the state's top tourist attraction.
Soon the space is to be converted into a "new retail, entertainment and hotel district," said Nick Shields, a Navy Pier spokesman. Shields could not say specifically what would fill the space.
For Rolf Achilles, who curated the Smith museum, the closing is disappointing. Achilles, an adjunct professor of historic restoration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said Chicago is losing a strong cultural attraction.
"It's like closing down 'American Gothic' at the Art Institute to put in a restaurant, to put in another McDonald's or something," he said.
For 14 years the collection has been on display in an unconventional space that snakes along Navy Pier's lower level, and can appear at first glance more like a well-decorated hallway than a museum. The 800-foot-long central corridor at the east end of the pier is visited by art aficionados — and also tourists seeking a restroom.
Ken and Pat Haats, of Waterloo, Iowa, happened upon signs for the museum Wednesday morning as they walked along Navy Pier and decided to check it out.
"I can't see how you'd miss this," said Pat Haats, who used to create stained glass windows.
But Jane and Rick Serre of Moline, Ill., also walked through the museum Wednesday — on their way to a restaurant. The couple looked at a few panels but made their way quickly through the hall.
"We came with the intention of having lunch at Margaritaville," Rick Serre said.
The upcoming renovations are part of Navy Pier's Centennial Vision — a plan for improvements including additional green space, Chicago-style food vendors and a hotel set to honor the pier's 100th birthday in 2016.
A representative of the Smith Museum, John Pastuovic, said he learned just over a year ago that the exhibit would need to move.
"They were looking at expanding with substantial improvements to Navy Pier, and where our display was, was in the footprint of their plan," he said.
The exhibit opened in 2000 under a 10-year art loan agreement signed in 1997 and then was extended with a series of one-year agreements.
The collection was donated by Maureen Dwyer Smith and Edward Byron Smith Jr., whose family founded Illinois Tool Works and Northern Trust. It includes stained glass windows from around the world, some dating back nearly 150 years. The pieces have inhabited windows in churches and synagogues, schools, homes and mausoleums.
Shields said Navy Pier offered the Smith Museum 4,000 square feet in the renovated building. Pastuovic said the museum decided against accepting the offer.
Visitors will still be able to find stained glass at the pier, Shields said, as the Richard H. Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass will remain. The separate exhibit sits just off the Smith Museum and houses 11 Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows. Tiffany was the son of Harriet Olivia Young and Charles Lewis Tiffany, founders of Tiffany & Co.
Achilles, the curator, said he thought fewer people would seek out the Driehaus Gallery now that the Smith Museum is leaving. He expects a strong reaction once news spreads about the museum closing.
"Nobody in the stained glass community knows it's leaving Navy Pier," Achilles said. "There will be an uproar."
Richard Gross, media director for the Stained Glass Association of America, said the collection is admired by stained glass experts. He said many travel to Chicago just to see the museum.
"I'm not aware of a place that has the same extensive collection," Gross said. "(Closing the Smith Museum) is taking away a great resource."
The immediate challenge facing those moving the artwork is their Oct. 15 deadline. Conservationists are working around the clock.
Dmitri Rybchenkov, an art conservationist tasked with overseeing the process, said that while he is confident the team can pull it off, the time frame might be more appropriate for removing drywall than fragile panes of stained glass. On other projects, Rybchenkov said he's been allotted two to three weeks to remove and prepare just one panel.
"We're working at a speed that is not known coming from an art conservationist," he said.
Meanwhile, museum representatives are working to secure places to display the panels.
Pastuovic said some will be installed in pedways and maybe airports — where a large audience of passers-by would be able to see them — but that the museum was not yet ready to make any official announcements.
It is unlikely that the entire collection will be reconvened in one exhibit, he said, because very few venues offer as large a space as Navy Pier.
"The art is meant to be displayed and shared," Pastuovic said. "It is of continued importance that we achieve that goal."