A Suburban Community College Scored A Big Art Show. Then, The Pandemic Hit.

rendering of Frida Kahlo exhibti
A rendering of how the Kahlo exhibit was expected to be displayed. Courtesy of Justin Witte / McAninch Arts Center
rendering of Frida Kahlo exhibti
A rendering of how the Kahlo exhibit was expected to be displayed. Courtesy of Justin Witte / McAninch Arts Center

A Suburban Community College Scored A Big Art Show. Then, The Pandemic Hit.

More than two dozen works from famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo were scheduled to be on display next month at the College of DuPage in west suburban Glen Ellyn.

The school spent $2.5 million turning the art gallery inside the McAninch Art Center into a museum — and $250,000 of tickets had already been sold, said director Diana Martinez.

“You don’t ever achieve any real exciting success if you don’t try something crazy new,” she said. “And this was pretty crazy.”

The excitement wasn’t limited to the community college campus. Glen Ellyn’s budget earmarked $10,000 to help spread the word about the show. And village officials proclaimed September 2019 through August 2020 the “Year of Frida Kahlo.” The suburb even hosted “Frida Fest” to celebrate the artist and Mexican culture.

But the coronavirus pandemic, and Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, led the school’s board of directors in April to postpone the show — originally called “Frida: 2020” and now called “Frida Kahlo: Timeless — until June 2021.

The delay is another chapter in the unlikely story of how 26 works from one of the world’s most famous artists were supposed to be shown at a community college 25 miles west of downtown Chicago. Martinez and her colleagues spent about three years planning and organizing the exhibit, which never would have happened without the help of a local philanthropist, an infusion of funding, renovations and added security.

“We had never heard of the College of DuPage”

Alan Peterson, a supporter of the arts who was integral to the opening of College of DuPage in 1967, approached Martinez in 2017 with a very specific plan to grow the reputation of the school’s performing arts center and art gallery.

His idea included longtime friend Carlos Phillips, the son of Dolores Olmedo, who founded the Museo Dolores Olmedo in Mexico City. The museum owns the largest collection of Kahlo’s works in the world, and their friendship was an opportunity for the College of DuPage.

photo of Frida Kahlo images
One of the photographs that will be on display for 'Frida Kahlo: Timeless.' The exhibit will feature more personal items from Kahlo. Courtesy of Justin Witte / McAninch Arts Center

But school officials still had to convince museum officials that the collection — including some of Kahlo’s most well-known paintings and most personal works — should go to the community college instead of one of Chicago’s many museums, which attract millions of visitors every year.

“We had never heard of the College of DuPage,” said Adriana Jaramillo of the Olmedo Museum.

So Martinez pitched Phillips, who is now director of the Museo Dolores Olmedo.

“One, Frida was the people’s artist, what better place — access,” she said. “Two, we can have all this wraparound educational components.”

And, finally, Martinez told Phillips the school would turn the gallery space into a museum.

Making the space “museum grade”

Once Martinez secured an agreement, she needed to turn the school’s Cleve Carney Art Gallery into a museum — a $2.5 million endeavor.

The Kahlo collection is estimated to be worth $113 million, so the updates included additional security for the oil paintings and lithographs. Martinez said the school also added impenetrable walls and ceilings, along with security cameras on the interior and exterior, and planned to staff the exhibit with 24-hour security guards.

The renovation also included an expansion to provide an additional 1,000 square feet to the space. 

What was once a contemporary art gallery that featured Chicago-area artists was now an art museum.

A COVID-19 roadblock

model of Frida Kahlo exhibit
Courtesy of Justin Witte / McAninch Arts Center

Then the exhibit was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

And in late March, as events around the state were canceled or postponed, Martinez realized that “Frida: 2020” wasn’t going to happen this year.

For a June opening, curators needed to begin installation in mid-April, Martinez said. When that time passed with the College of DuPage still closed, the school’s board voted to postpone the show until 2021.

“How can we be like, ‘We’re going to go on without you even though your hotels are closed?’ It just didn’t seem right,” Martinez said.

The show will go on, but without Peterson

The Kahlo collection is again available to come to the College of DuPage next summer. The exhibit, “Frida Kahlo: Timeless”, will run from June 5 to Sept. 6, 2021, and tickets will be transferable with refunds available.

But one person who won’t be there is the man that made it happen.

Peterson died on April 20 at the age of 90.

“You know how certain communities have the forefathers, the people who invest in things and help to build things? He was that guy in Glen Ellyn,” Martinez said

“We are forever grateful to Alan Peterson for his leadership, guidance, and inspiration to always ‘build bridges,’” Martinez said. “We dedicate this exhibition to the memory of Alan and [his widow] Milly, who will be deeply missed on the opening day. “

Carrie Shepherd covers arts and culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @cshepherd.