The Art of Thinking
Early Afternoon (Daylight Burning) by Chicago-based artist Judy Ledgerwood is one of 500 works in the Harper Center art collection. Photograph by Joe Przybylski.

The Art of Thinking

Bold, passionate, thought-provoking, global: the contemporary art adorning Harper Center captures the Booth spirit.

Amid the daily hustle and bustle of Harper Center’s ground floor atrium, it’s easy to miss the hot-pink neon sign perched on the side of a walkway bridge. Written in Chinese script, the glowing characters twinkle at their radiant companion on the opposite wall—a vibrant, neon-green sign, articulating a saying in Spanish. Though their languages differ, the signs share the same meaning: “Foreigners Everywhere.”

Both colorful installations reside in the Rothman Winter Garden, beckoning curious passersby to reflect on their deeper meaning, against the architectural backdrop of a world-class business school. Created by French art collective Claire Fontaine, these works are just two examples of a remarkable, 500-piece contemporary art collection housed at the Charles M. Harper Center.

To Canice Prendergast, W. Allen Wallis Professor of Economics and keeper of the collection, Claire Fontaine’s creations embody the broader purpose of the vast array of art at Booth, an institution that gathers together students, alumni, and faculty from around the globe in pursuit of greater knowledge.

“We’re not trying to be didactic, but we are trying to get you to ask questions,” Prendergast said. “For me, Foreigners Everywhere is everything that’s great about the contemporary world: I have colleagues and students from all over the world. We have staff from all over the world, and that adds a terrific dimension to life.” But, he acknowledged, the same message could arouse in others a sense of apprehension about an increasingly globalized society—and that’s exactly the point.

“We’re not trying to tell you what to think, but we’re trying to get you to think,” he said. “In a sense, that’s the mission of the school.”

Building the Collection

Few if any other business schools have such an extensive and highly regarded art collection, which began to take shape in 2004 after the Rafael Viñoly–designed Harper Center opened its doors. The Booth community felt its soaring and stunning new home needed something equally compelling to hang on the walls. Then-dean Edward A. Snyder agreed, and a five-member selection committee was given a budget to acquire new works. 

It is often very tempting for an institution that has such an illustrious history to look back at its achievements. With the art collection, we try to say something about the world as it is today.

Canice Prendergast

From the beginning, the collection’s guiding philosophy has been that it should expand upon Booth’s educational mission. Even as the collection has earned a local reputation approaching those of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art, it is still free and open to the public. Pieces are often lent to other institutions, and a QR code–enabled audio guide invites visitors to linger and explore.

The decision to focus the collection on contemporary art has proved a natural fit. “One of the things that a university has to do is look forward rather than look back,” explained Prendergast. “It is often very tempting for an institution that has such an illustrious history to look back at its achievements. With the art collection, we try to say something about the world as it is today. There is no doubt of the extent to which historical work can do that, but contemporary work has a particular resonance.”

The committee that selects new art includes two of Chicago’s top curators: James Rondeau, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Susanne Ghez, the longtime executive director and curator of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, now at the Art Institute. Los Angeles–based collectors Suzanne Deal Booth and Dean Valentine, AB ’76, round out the group, along with Prendergast, a self-described “enthusiastic amateur” who caught the collecting bug thanks to his sister, Kathy Prendergast, a London-based painter and sculptor. All five consider proposed acquisitions, and four must say yes in order to make the purchase.

The group considers a range of artists from all over the world—more than 120 are now represented within the collection. Inside Harper Center, works by well-established artists mingle with creations from relative unknowns—some of whom, such as painter Mark Grotjahn (see Untitled), saw their careers take off after Booth acquired their pieces.

The collection's location on a campus leads to a few special considerations. The committee avoids artwork with loud audio that can disrupt studying students and sculptures that could easily topple, for example. Most pieces are framed objects hung on walls, so the group has lately sought out a broader mix. The collection now includes two video installations, as well as sound- and computer-based pieces.

A Different Sort of Language

“People often ask, especially since we are a business school, if there is an investment component to what we do,” Prendergast said. “The answer is not at all. It is for consumption. It is to make the experience here in the building as good as it can be.”

Indeed, the ever-evolving collection has become popular with the Booth community in Hyde Park, especially among the student body. The Graduate Business Council student group, which runs the QR-code audio tour, periodically offers guided tours with the professor. But woe to those who click slowly: the invitation goes out by email, and it takes about 40 seconds to fill all 30 spaces.

“There are a lot of places that put a decoration on the wall where you look at it the first time and you think it is nice, and then you never see it again,” Prendergast said. “With us, I think it’s the other way around, even if you don’t ‘get it’ the first time—there’s a piece downstairs that I voted against, but it’s now one of my favorites because I’ve looked at it for the past five years.”

The goal is to celebrate art that is not just ornamental but intellectual, and invites continued reflection—whether it grapples with big ideas such as globalization (see Cao Fei’s Tussle), or represents an intimate reflection on work-life balance (see Frances Stark’s Structures That Fit My Opening [and Other Parts Considered in Relation to Their Whole]).

“One of the characteristics of higher education is abstraction—I use mathematics and graphs in class, for example,” Prendergast said. “We all have various languages we use to try and get ideas across. Art is just another way of looking at the world. It’s just another language.”

Click here to take a virtual tour of the collection's highlights »