You don’t have to drive more than 50 miles to the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, to visit a single-family home designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). In 1952, Mies’s McCormick House was completed in the nearby western suburb of Elmhurst.
The modernist one-story structure was a prototype for a Melrose Park development that was never realized. According to Elmhurst Art Museum chief curator Staci Boris, McCormick House didn’t appeal to locals because it lacked common amenities like a basement and air-conditioning. The house still stands, however. In 1994, Mies’s design was moved a few blocks from its original location to become the centerpiece of the EAM.
The McCormick House inspired “Open House: Art About Home,” the first exhibition that Boris organized for the museum. Before becoming chief curator last July, she spent several months as a consultant to the EAM, revamping the McCormick House living/dining room into a combination gallery, meeting space and study room full of midcentury modernist furniture and housewares. Last month, she sat down among the McCormick House’s Herman Miller and Knoll treasures to discuss “Open House,” which runs through April 20, and her plans for the museum’s future.
Boris’s impressive C.V. includes a stint as the last director of Art Chicago as well as five years as a curator at the Spertus Museum and 12 years as a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She has known some of the artists in “Open House” for years, such as Alyssa Miserendino, whose photographs of abandoned homes were another inspiration for the show.
The exhibition’s seven artists offer varied perspectives on domestic life and the concept of home. Alberto Aguilar makes sculptures out of objects borrowed from residents of Elmhurst and nearby suburbs, including Lombard, where he grew up. Ann Toebbe presents her signature beautifully rendered paintings and collages of remembered interiors. Miserendino’s series Our World Insideout begins in 2004, with haunting photos of her childhood home just before it was auctioned. The show also features Gabrielle Garland’s vivid paintings of notable interiors, Martin Hyers and William Mebane’s photos of strangers’ personal possessions, and house-shaped sculptures by Don Baum (1922–2008), the artist-curator who was an early champion of the Chicago Imagists.
Each artist’s work fills a room within the EAM’s approximately 4,000-square-foot exhibition galleries, part of the museum’s contemporary main building designed by DeStefano + Partners. The show is the perfect size—big enough to let visitors get to know the artists without overwhelming us.
McCormick House, where Aguilar installed one of his sculptures, “is sort of the last piece in the exhibition,” the chief curator says. She hopes some of the EAM’s future shows will “have a conversation with Mies and modernism and architecture and design,” adding, “I want to do an exhibition about artists who explore Mies specifically. I don’t think it’s been done.”
Boris believes the EAM is also an ideal venue for local emerging and midcareer artists: Its next show will highlight new work by Leslie Baum, Diana Guerrero-Maciá, Jessica Labatte and Adam Scott.
“We’re kind of like a house museum, but also a contemporary museum—and a 20th-century museum,” she says, citing Baum’s enhancement of “Open House.” “I think having McCormick House here sets us apart.”
Aguilar leads a workshop at the EAM Saturday 9 at 2pm.