Known for its Gilded Age glamour, the Driehaus Museum embraces its edgy side with an envelope-pushing new contemporary art program.
“Party Time: Re-imagine America” (2008/9), Photo © Yinka Shonibare CBE/Courtesy of James Cohan, New York
Few institutions manifest their ethos as exactingly as River North’s Richard H. Driehaus Museum, its focus on the Gilded Age as era-embodying as the Nickerson Mansion that houses its turn-of-the-20th-century treasures. But don’t mistake A Tale of Today: New Artists at the Driehaus—its new showcase of contemporary artists, emphasizing those of color—as an about-face: “It wasn’t just about trying to diversify and expand,” explains Executive Director Richard P. Townsend, “but opening the door to making a real difference in the community by dealing with socioeconomic and racial disparities that exist in our country, which came to a head in the Gilded Age.” What’s more, Townsend notes, the program upholds one of the “original intentions” of the house, where the Nickersons hosted contemporary artists of their time in what is the present-day Maher Gallery.
Townsend’s choice to kick things off? Yinka Shonibare CBE, a British-Nigerian multihyphenate whose works here refract the Victorian era through satire, appropriation and other devices to examine globalism, colonialism and more. In “Party Time: Re-imagine America” (2008/9), the artist’s tableau of headless mannequins consorting at a table while wearing Dutch wax prints, Shonibare is “correcting history... allowing people of color in these indigenous fabrics to own the space.” Similarly, in photographic series like “Diary of a Victorian Dandy” (1998) and “Dorian Gray” (2001), Shonibare inserts himself in settings atypical to persons of color, effectively recalibrating the period’s class and race relations.
“It’s that sense of liberty and transgression in the face of the established order,” enthuses Townsend. “These are subversive ideas. But they’re so beautifully couched and expressed that we’re open to the message, and we receive the message.” Through Sept. 29, 40 E. Erie St.