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Success in Sight

The MCA continues to thrive under Madeleine Grynsztejn’s leadership. Just ask the president of France.

“We want to be locally necessary,” says Madeleine Grynsztejn. “That’s what makes us internationally distinctive.”

To the list of individuals not from France who have been named a knight in the French Legion of Honour, that nation’s highest decoration, established by Napoleon Bonaparte—a diverse roster that includes luminaries such as composer Giuseppe Verdi, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, Eleanor Roosevelt, and both Robert Redford and Salma Hayek—may now be added Madeleine Grynsztejn.

That’s not because the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pritzker director did early scholarly work on impressionist Édouard Manet; or because the museum had a hit show in late 2012 with an exhibition of work by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, hip French designing brothers; or—well, it’s a secret vote, so it’s not entirely clear why. One thing is certain, though: In this, as with any inquiry she fields regarding something on the long list of her successes, Grynsztejn is quick to pass the accolades around.

“The way I think about the museum is that it is a beautiful bird, and it needs two wings to fly,” she says in her bright office overlooking the museum’s grand front staircase. “It needs an amazing staff, and it needs an amazing board. It needs to have great vision, and it needs to be solidly, financially stable.”

Check and check. Since arriving in 2008, after stints at the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Grynsztejn has built what she calls a “dream team” of curators, who have produced such hits as last year’s David Bowie show, whose 193,000 visitors set a record. There’s been a spiffy rebranding and partnerships with numerous organizations around town. A recent fundraising campaign took the museum’s endowment over $100 million for the first time in its history, and the institution recently announced a smart renovation plan, including an expanded, more visible education department and a restaurant, to coincide with its 50th anniversary in 2017.

“All of that is of a piece with making the MCA more relevant to the people of Chicago than ever before,” she says. “What I want to happen for the 50th is for people in the city to get up and think: I wonder what’s happening at the MCA today?”

Grynsztejn’s Hots
Partnerships, Chuck Close, being a good neighbor

Grynsztejn’s Nots
A strict line between art and fashion and design