Two Pioneering Institutions of Modern Art at 100 – The Arts Club

Janine Mileaf

The Arts Club of Chicago and the Renaissance Society celebrated their Centennial Anniversary this year and last, respectively. Each was formed in the wake of the infamous Armory Show of 1913 to show support for Art to counter the withering criticism of that show and many of its displayed works.

That did not mean these institutions, both currently champions of cutting-edge contemporary art, were ready to accept the art of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso or Marcel Duchamp with open arms. Not until fifteen years later did both begin to embrace modernist artists. The Arts Club has had five homes over the years while the Renaissance Society has had three.

To learn more of each’s past history and current state of affairs, US Editor Tom Mullaney sat down with Janine Mileaf, executive director at the Arts Club and Solveig Ovstebo at the Renaissance Society to hear their thoughts and plans.

TM: The Arts Club was founded after the Armory show to be more accommodating to modern art of the time. But you’d probably have to say that the Arts Club was still more traditional with a more historical approach to art. How would you respond?

Arts Club

JM: That’s a great question. So, in fact, having just written this book and worked with my coauthor, we have a new take on that very question to some extent. We were founded in 1916 and it is true that some of the founders were very interested in response to the Armory Show. But we were partnered for two years with the Artists Guild, a very traditional arts and crafts institution, which was in the Fine Arts building. Then, in 1918, the Artists Guild president stepped down and Rue Winterbotham Carpenter took over, moved the location and lent the club some money. She broke with the Artists Guild and that’s when we sort of became much more avant-garde.

TM: It’s true that Ms. Carpenter and her assistant, Alice Rouillier, had the right art connections but they still faced criticism for showing “usurpers.” You have a sort of dual purpose: you’re a private club as well as promoting more non-traditional art. Would you say that, in the eyes of the public, the Arts Club may still be seen as a genteel club?
JM: Yes and no and we’re working on that. I think you are right to pick up on the diversity of interests within the club from day one. And it’s true,
when you look back on the exhibitions—there were hundreds in the first few years. By 1927, there were like 400 exhibitions. They would do very short and very diverse shows. Not like me. I put a show up every four months. I spend a lot of money and people come and see it. Those shows had everything from Egyptian artifacts, Chinese and even Islamic art, and also a steady flow of monographic European artist exhibitions. The club is two different institutions at once in some ways. It’s a public, not-for-profit and, from very early on, it has had very landmark showings of international artists.
TM: Would you say the main focus of the Arts Club is the visual programs and maybe music programs. The other areas of the arts—theater, dance have waxed and waned over the years. Would you say that’s accurate?
JM: I would say, for the public for sure, that the visual arts is the main, steady flow but that the music program has been active. I would add architecture to those two of our four interests. In our current programming, we hit all of those fields. Dance and literature have other venues in the city where they have stronger followings. So, I think you are fully right.
TM: Give me a brief synopsis of your training prior to coming to the Arts Club.
JM: Sure. I have a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania and I was a tenured professor at Swarthmore College for a little more than a decade. I moved to Chicago only because this institution was intriguing to me for its history and that it had been mythic in my training. And, honestly, I didn’t know it still existed (laughter). And then I realized, “Wow, this is a living institution.” So, I’ve been working in the last five years to make it even a more dynamic institution.
TM: It seems that the Shaws, from mother to daughter to granddaughter, have been very instrumental in its history. And, even as much as Ms. Carpenter and “Bobsy” Goodspeed did for the club, the defining figure in the club’s history has been Rue Shaw (director from 1940 to 1979). In doing this book, what have you picked up about Ms. Shaw?
JM: I wish I knew her. She was a force, for sure. I think the club would have closed without her. After World War II, there was a moment when we
were losing our lease at the Wrigley Building and that was in 1949. She put everything in storage and looked for new space. And it took her genius to reach out to Mies van der Rohe to design the new space. She found rental space in a commercial building (109 East Ontario). It was the only space that Mies ever designed that wasn’t his own building. He designed our interior. So, she rebirthed the club in 1951. And then she invited John Cage, and then Jean Dubuffet right after that. So I think her impact is really material in the actual existence of the club, in the programming and in the people she met and reached out to.
But it’s also that she was the president at a challenging time. And then her tenure was a long time to be president and she was the guiding force.
She had a strong exhibitions committee chair but I feel her thing wasn’t the exhibitions as much but more the social life and the speakers she brought in and the building and Mies and her presence. Whereas, in different moments in the life of the club, there are more landmark  exhibitions rather than the general atmosphere.
TM: Even though the club had good intentions at the beginning, it wasn’t until the 1920s that Matisse and others, like Brancusi, were exhibited. In the book, it says “Not only was there no institution at the time devoted to showing modern art in Chicago but there was none anywhere in the
United States.” You should get points for that.
JM: I think so. It was the first non-gallery institution to show 20th Century art.
TM: And you have to say that the Art Institute was pretty hidebound back then.
JM: Oh, completely against it. I think there were some forward-thinking trustees. We had a gallery in the Art Institute from 1922 to 1927 and we basically parted ways because there were many trustees who were strongly against it. It wasn’t until the “Art of This Century” show that the Art Institute started embracing art of the 20th Century.
TM: There was this group called “Sanity in Art” committee. I think a lot of them were over at the Union League. Have you come across members who would fit in that category?
JM: Don’t tell me. They keep it from me (laughter).
TM: Is that still a struggle, the acceptance of difficult contemporary art, or do you think that struggle has been won, Now that contemporary art is so accepted and valued, it would seem you wouldn’t have that problem.
JM: We don’t really have strong reactionary responses to what we’re doing. It would be hard to be shocking in the contemporary art world. We
have indifference if we have anything. You know, in our music front, we have some of the most challenging stuff to people because you have to be there and sit through it. And we’ve been doing a lot with new music, both in our public programming and for the members. That area is a growth area and we’re bringing people along.
TM: There is a phrase in the book, “the hurried breath of modernity.” Was that meant as a compliment or not?
JM: I chose that as the title for my essay because I was very much interested in the conversational nature of the institution. That’s what we really
distinguish ourselves by is the live interaction between the members and the speakers and the art. And so it seemed to me there was a live feeling
in a room with lots of people deeply engaged. I meant it as a compliment that there was active engagement and that I think carries through to
today—to keep a conversation going.
TM: We’re now at 100. There will be a major public event on October 22nd. How do you want to take the Arts Club out five years to 2020?
JM: Well, when I got here, I was so impressed by the exhibition history, {but} the institution’s community was a little bit quiet. And I really wanted to bring in a dynamism—to our programming and our engagement with the city. We’ve always had a very special role within the
cultural institutions in the city, the CSO and Steppenwolf and all these things. And Chicago, in general, isn’t a competitive place as much as a
collaborative place and I feel we’re very specially positioned to enable to bring in all those other people to promote their programs and give our
members a backseat view of what’s happening. I also thought we had some work to do in engaging the actual makers in the city. The Arts Club has always had its exhibition programs focused internationally and I’ve maintained that as a very important role. On the other hand, I’ve launched an exhibition program out in the garden of Chicago-based artists. And that’s been an exciting way to engage the community that’s already here.
They’re just as world-class. They just happen to be living in Chicago.
So, that’s my goal. To just maintain the international reputation for the world class exhibitions that we do but, in our daily life, to really become
imperative to the cultural life of the city by being in the nexus of everything that’s happening.
TM: Are you’re thinking along the lines of establishing a memorial lecture series. Is there some way of doing that or giving a prize that would give
the club more public visibility?
JM: We just started a fellowship for a local, recent MFA grad and that had to do with donors being interested in using the institution to mentor.
There’s a generation of artists in this city where being connected to this institution could be very useful to them.
TM: You and the Renaissance Society are both at year 100 and the reason for your existence is not as pressing as it was in 1915 and 1916. The public is pretty engaged with Art now. I wonder, are you under pressure to remain relevant?
JM: Well, I think that happened almost 30 years ago and then it went away after the MCA was founded and the Art Institute has such an incredible contemporary art function. There was a moment in the 1970s when the Arts Club couldn’t get the same resources and artists that those bigger institutions could. We have been reconsidering our function. I think we’re incredibly important right now but for different reasons. Like you said, it’s not like the only place showing modern art in the country anymore and the Ren is just down the street and has a different mission than we do. But we are a place for live conversation and one-to-one experience.
And so the art is the core of what we do but it’s only relevant if there are people here talking about it. We were always founded to bring art to the city and continue that conversation. So, I think with the digital and with everybody thinking they’ve seen everything…
TM: Yes, but it seems like so many institutions are saying they need to redefine and refresh who they are and what they do.
JM: You know, by being old-fashioned, we are refreshing ourselves. Because there is a pressure on our community to find places where you are really talking to one another face to face. And so, by maintaining this anachronistic institution, we are credibly cutting-edge.
TM: What is the current membership?
JM: About 1150 members. And it was more like 1040 when I got here.
TM: What haven’t I asked you that you’d like to state?
JM: That it remains a unique institution, even though there are other places to see contemporary art. The Arts Club history, the gorgeous building that John Vinci designed, its membership and its structure, as both a non-profit and a private club, make it pretty much a unique institution in the world. There are other clubs but the Arts Club is history. When I approach other artists to come here, they’re ecstatic. It still has an aura.

Tom Mullaney, Chicago Editor (Retr’d)

Volume 31 number 2, November / December 2016 pp 15-22

Janine Mileaf’s pick of key art events in the
Arts Club’s history include:
• Exhibit of Pablo Picasso (1923)
• Visit by Igor Stravinsky (1925)
• Brancusi exhibition (1927)
• John Cage lecture (1942)
• Lecture by Jean Dubuffet (1951)
More recently:
• The Josiah McElhiny’s Two Clubs at the
Arts Club exhibit (2013)
• Jean-Luc Mylayne collaboration with the
Art Institute for a pavilion in Millennium
Park (2015).

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