A Bigger Better Block | Our Town | Chicago Reader

A Bigger Better Block 

Northwestern opens a gift.

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Two years ago, right around the time Northwestern University decided its College of Arts and Sciences needed a longer name--something like the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences--retired north suburban attorney Paul Leffmann gave the university a gift. Leffmann donated nearly four million dollars to the Mary and Leigh Block Gallery for its building fund. The Weinbergs gave the university money too. They never said exactly how much, but it was understood to be somewhere around $30 million.

Another extraordinary coincidence is presenting itself at Northwestern this week. The Block Gallery, expanded into a museum by an addition that tripled its size, is reopening after a year of construction. Now called the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, it's an aluminum-trimmed glass and limestone cake box built right over the old gallery, on the Evanston campus's Arts Circle. Designed by Dirk Lohan, it has a two-story hothouse entry with a staircase at one end (reminiscent of the famous Arts Club stairway designed by Lohan's grandpa, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) and an exposed elevator shaft at the other. Upstairs, where most of the space was added, there's a big new wing that floats above a plaza, supported by several fat metal-faced columns. The building's main doors look like they came from a meat locker, but inside there's a groovy gray 160-seat auditorium and 6,000 square feet of white-walled, wood-floored exhibit space, including a superwired classroom that doubles as a high-tech gallery; a print, drawing, and photography study center; and three galleries. This wonderful addition was made possible by Paul Leffmann's contribution (which paid for about half of it), and guess what. One of those galleries (a small one) is dedicated to a permanent exhibition of work by his wife, fiber artist Theo Leffmann. Not only that, the museum has mounted a traveling show of her work for the grand opening, has taken 60 of her pieces into its collection, and has just published a fully illustrated hardcover book about her, written mostly by the show's curator, Mary Jane Jacob.

Leffmann's art is interesting, especially the pieces that look like effigies, with wrapped, mouthless heads, draped or stringy suggestions of bodies, and found-object features. The book says "towards the end of her life she was counted as a master in the contemporary fiber movement." But she worked at home on a relatively small scale, seldom exhibited, apparently broke little or no new ground, and was much less influential than the artists the exhibit lumps her with, like Claire Zeisler. So isn't it remarkable that the museum would devote so much space and attention to her? I put the question to the Block's director, David Mickenberg, who said the Leffmanns had approached the museum about exhibiting Theo's work several years before she died. "I replied to them in a letter, saying we wanted to show some local artists but didn't have enough space." When Paul Leffmann decided to make a donation in her memory, "one of the conditions of the gift was that we'd show her work." Isn't that unusual? No, said Mickenberg: "Donors want to see the works they donate get their fair share [of exposure]. She's not an established artist, but one of the purposes of this museum is to give artists who deserve greater discourse and attention an opportunity to be seen."

Mickenberg seems like a straight shooter, but I don't know. The way things are going, it won't surprise me if we soon see a few Weinberg family members ensconced as tenured professors in the arts and sciences.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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