An Interview with John McKinnon, Executive Director of Elmhurst Art Museum

Each week CGN interviews a local art-industry professional to discuss the ins and outs of running a space in the city of Chicago. This week we caught up with John McKinnon of Elmhurst Art Museum.

Previous occupation: Program Director at the Society for Contemporary Art

Hometown: I’m originally from Trevor, Wisconsin and have lived in Chicago for 16 years.


5 favorites from the past week 

Restaurant: Marisol at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a great place to meet up with colleagues and friends.
Shop: Brewpoint Coffee in Elmhurst. They have two convenient locations near the museum, so I’ve become a regular.
Read: I came home to find a note written by my daughter that said, “Mom is hiding”.
Neighborhood: West Town recently received a huge boost with Rhona Hoffman’s new location.
Music: Freedom, the new album by Amen Dunes is a very enjoyable, solid album.


CGN: Tell us about your background and how your position with the Elmhurst Art Museum came to be?

JM: I started undergrad in Electrical and Computer Engineering at UW-Madison. About half way through school, I took a sharp right turn, and was guided by some amazing professors towards a Bachelor of Science in Art. I worked at the Wendy Cooper Gallery in Madison, who started a location in Chicago a few years later where I became the Director. While pursuing dual Masters degrees in Arts Administration and Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I had several internships and did some freelance writing. I then had the pleasure of working as the Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum for a number of years. Next, I spent seven years as the Program Director of the Society for Contemporary Art where I worked with a core group of donors and collectors to support contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was a fantastic opportunity to oversee this nonprofit and work with a lot of very dedicated people.

The position at the Elmhurst Art Museum was enticing because of many opportunities for personal and organizational growth. The museum is at a fascinating point, where it will soon be philosophically and physically transformed as the unique McCormick House, designed by Mies van der Rohe, becomes more visible.


CGN: What's the first thing you do each morning when you get to the museum? 

JM: I usually drink a little coffee, check-in with everyone in the office, organize a few papers, and then head right into a meeting. Lately I’ve also peeked into our construction site to see the progress of our building restoration.


CGN: Do you have a favorite exhibition or collection from the past?

JM: I enjoy all of our shows for very different reasons, but I was personally very proud of our January exhibitions (Gertrude Abercrombie: Portrait of the Artist as a Landscape and IN THIS HOUSE, a site-specific group show in the McCormick House) because I watched the organization come together in my new role. We had a number of fantastic loans, partners, and participating artists; the staff worked very hard; and a lot of my friends and colleagues traveled to see the exhibition.


CGN: What major successes have you had this year? What about challenges?

JM: Before our construction, visitors to the Elmhurst Art Museum would commonly ask “Where is the house?” The biggest challenge I had was sharing our vision for the construction because most people did not understand where one building started and where the other ended. After giving a number of tours, I had red tape placed on the floor, as well as moved and replaced some interpretive materials. I would say it was successful because we received a lot of generous support to fund the project, and now the tape even seems to be used by our construction company.

On June 10th, we will re-open the McCormick House. Visitors will be able to see its full exterior for the first time in over twenty years and will understand it as a standalone structure again. I am very grateful for the opportunity to guide the organization at this point, and we would not have been able to accomplish it without the leadership and generosity of our donors.


CGN: What do you want to tell a young person considering this career path?

JM: I often tell potential arts professionals they should not be afraid to take an unconventional route and take as many internships as possible to try out several different things. It sounds like a cliché but find what you are passionate about. I did not expect to be in this position, and everyone’s path is different.


CGN: What is your favorite interest outside of the art world?

JM: I listen to a lot of music. For an eight-year period I made a mixed tape every month. The exercise forced me to discover a lot of new music, whether brand new albums or things I missed from the last few decades. Taking a deep dive into another contemporary field gave me a good sense of how you can find things you aren’t expecting, an understanding of other artistic approaches, and it led me to appreciate things in a new way.


CGN: What do you look for in an artwork? When searching for yourself, what speaks to you?

JM: I love to be challenged. I often pause when I find something unexpected that jumps out to me, especially when I return to the same work and reconsider it multiple ways. It is a privilege and a pleasure to talk with artists and hear their thinking process. But truly one of the most enjoyable parts of my job is to share my impressions of an artwork or an entire exhibition with others.


CGN: What’s coming up next at Elmhurst Art Museum?

JM: I’ve already hinted at this, but we have big plans for this summer. When the McCormick House is unveiled, we will have a stunning architectural intervention within it by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle. Both of these will be accompanied by an exhibition in our main space curated by Barry Bergdoll entitled Mies’s McCormick House Revealed: New Views. The show provides an introduction, background, context, and visibility to the McCormick House (1952), one of only three single-family homes built by Mies van der Rohe in the U.S. It is my hope these three concurrent events will give the building an increased visibility as the home is a rare and important example of the architect's mature style, incorporating elements of his celebrated designs for the Farnsworth House and 860-880 Lake Shore Drive. I hope the exhibition will educate and inspire new generations about the unique and important modern home built in Elmhurst.


John McKinnon is Executive Director of Elmhurst Art Museum. For more information about the EAM please visit: Elmhurst Art Museum.

Top Image courtesy of Aidan Fitzpatrick