Two Pioneering Institutions of Modern Art at 100 – The Renaissance Society

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.

Solveig Ovstebo

TM: You too were begun after the Armory Show on the University of Chicago campus. Yet, while the university wanted to be more receptive to
modern art, the early days of the Renaissance Society were not progressive, right?
SO: It was both. The Renaissance Society was founded by 11 faculty members. At the beginning, it was part of the university. It had a mission
statement…
TM: “a society to stimulate the love of the beautiful and to enrich the life of the community” which is very 19th Century.
SO: Absolutely. But what it also did from the start was to create a platform for new thought. It was a lot of lectures, a lot of seminars, a lot of discussion. So, at the beginning, it had this institutional model. Some of the model that we still have with symposiums and events. But then, quite quickly, it became a pretty avant-garde institution.

TM: So, the 1915 mission statement I just read versus the 2015 mission as a “laboratory of art.” They kind of encapsulate two visions. Can you show how 1915 is still reflected in 2015?
SO: Obviously, the exhibition program presents contemporary art expressions over time. Some of them are “beautiful,” some of them are formal, but, at the same time, it’s not to say the beautiful cannot be political because it certainly can but it’s not the goal itself. I think the Renaissance Society is a platform where contemporary art is a voice in our society. It’s a form of communication and we want it to be that place where that communication can be heard. The institution is not a passive institution with four walls but an active place where art is presented and the content of a particular exhibition is discussed.

The Renaissance Society

TM: Just to stay in the 2016 moment. You say that art can be political. I’m thinking of a period of Imagism and Postmodernism where you really did have people, like Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman who really had a political bent. Are we in a more quiescent period of art these days?
SO: I think it’s different. Our times have so many fragments. It’s hard to say we have one direction that goes against the other. I think we have many different directions and many different contradictions.
TM: One of the things about the Ren is that, since it’s a non-collecting institution, it has relied on a publishing program to extend awareness and its influence beyond these four walls. Is that something that will continue?
SO: Oh definitely. It’s an incredibly important part of our practice and institutional focus. It’s important to contextualize what we do and create the dialogue around those works of art we exhibit. And now, we are aiming to get a publication for each show we do.
TM: I read in your centennial history volume about a project that Jordan Stein was undertaking, some kind of archive. Can you say more?
SO: This was a program for the 2015 Fall season where we celebrated our 100 years. We had different events—as many as five exhibitions that Fall, we had two symposiums, two galas and one big publication of all the history. So, we had a lot of activity going on. The archive show was to open all of these boxes on the wall in my office and look into the past. So you can basically go back and see handwritten letters, different messages from the artist, different artist sketches. Stein presented all of this material in a show that November.
TM: Looking at the history, we can say this is an institution that has had two larger-than-life figures—Eva Schutze (1929-35) and Suzanne Ghez (1974-2013).
SO: Definitely.
TM: The Ren, since the ‘70s has had an incredible record of giving many artists their first show. That list is quite impressive: Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Daniel Buren. Very confusing shows to me at the time.
SO: As it should be (laughter). I think it was not a chase to be the first but that it was artists that were not so appreciated at that time. They didn’t have a place to be shown that much and the Ren was a much more independent space.
TM: Do you feel that, with your background in Norway, there will be any more of a tilt toward more under-represented European artists to America?
SO: Not necessarily more European because the Ren has always been very European, actually. I think it will be more or less the same level of international. Because the time is very different from the ‘70s and the ‘80s, and even the ‘90s. The art world has exploded, the art world looks so different. I think what is important today is for institutions and the Ren to figure out what is their role in the bigger landscape. And I think that the Ren, being so lean and so focused, should cherish that and further develop that very close dialogue with artists and in commissioning new work.
TM: Do you feel that a motto for you, like it was with Suzanne, is “You formulate the dream, we’ll make it happen”? Can you see that as your own?
SO: Yeah, I don’t want to copy her. That was a method she used with artists and the results were amazing. Obviously, our approach towards making exhibitions and our approach towards what we think is important to focus on is similar. This is not a place for retrospective exhibitions but a place where artists can experiment and test boundaries within their own practice. So, for me, it’s a question of opening up and creating the best possible frame around an artist’s production.
TM: I think you moved into this facility in 1978, a space that is almost 40 years old. Is there any thought that the Ren now needs a slightly bigger
space?
SO: The question has come up because the Ren is such an important platform and important institution in this country. But, at the same time, there has been a conclusion that the Ren space is big enough for the exhibitions that we are structured to do. The type of solo shows, the new commissions. It’s not the place you go to see this huge new retrospective but where you can actually see a project. If you look at the art scene and the institutional world today, I think the problem is not that the spaces are too small but that they are too big. So, the Ren can play an important role and just show that it’s possible to make a great, solid, indepth program without the massive machinery of a large institution.
TM: But you have talked about expanding.
SO: It’s been in discussion for a long time. We don’t own our building. As an institution, we’re happy campers at the university. But we’re not part of the university so, in that sense, it’s natural that it has come up but I’m still very happy and I love the space.
TM: What do you think made Suzanne so successful and able to lead for so long?
SO: Oh, so many things. Obviously, she is a brilliant curator, first and foremost. She is a great manager. Those two things are paired. I think also she was able to go with her gut and not think too much about what was next to her. That, combined with the two previous characteristics, is actually what kept her going. She had the possibility to then work with artists she felt were important and needed the space to do the work.
TM: And it seems that the artists trusted her and kept giving her names.
SO: Yes.
TM: You have a lot of contact with artists. What do artists say makes doing art so hard today, aside from the stars at the art fairs? There’s this whole substrata that don’t get recognition or have access to shows or gallery representation. What do you hear about the art life?
SO: That’s a good question. I think there is really a lot of fatigue these days in the art world because it has exploded and the market is really in charge. It’s a very, very strong force. Let’s not be naïve. It’s important to make the mechanism go around. I know a lot of artists who feel disempowered by it because it is so strong. Only in the 20 years that I’ve been in the art world, it’s exploded with the number of biennials,
the number of museums, the number of kuntshalles for that matter, the number of art schools, the number of art books and magazines. It’s vast. It’s meta.
TM: And artists feel like they have to promote their art with social media, websites.
SO: And then you have artists who say what I need is to do my own work and take away this noise. The importance of what people like me do is to try to see and be open to some strategies that is not part of this mainstream. That’s the job that needs to be done and we have to be careful about that.
TM: Like the Arts Club, the Renaissance Society has a relatively small audience. Within Chicago, the Arts Club is exclusive for membership. Do you feel there is a need, this being the 2016 art world, that the Ren can do more? I have a feeling, based on my 40-year history with the Ren that it’s more a place for people who are “in the know”.
SO: Well, the Ren is free and is an open institution to the public. Now, obviously when you are working in a niche we don’t work very broad but focused. With an artist practice, we tend to do artist research and go more in-depth. So, that means that the audience can sometimes see us as too narrow and not welcoming enough and too difficult. And this is something we discuss a lot because how do you open up and make things broader without compromising the artistic expression. So, my view to this is that Art is art. Artists should make their exhibitions or projects not with the thought of who is going to see it. That job is ours. We know there is also an audience that hasn’t a large knowledge about contemporary art but there are also people who come here and love what they see. It’s important for us to open up so they find us. We work with signage. We now have a gallery sitter that welcomes you and can talk about the show. But we don’t want to make it easier than it is. It is what it is.
TM: You said in an interview that the Renaissance Society has this interesting quality of “inbetweenness.” When you think of that concept, what does that connote?
SO: When we talk about institutions, it’s about how it’s described. It’s not a museum, it’s not a university gallery although it is at the  university, it’s not even a kuntshalle, though that is how it is often described. [deleted repetitive fragment] The board structure is much different. A kuntshalle is also much more public. And, first of all, it has much more public support in Norway.
TM: The Ren has had two periods in its history when it nearly went under before some benefactors stepped in. Financially, is the Ren in good shape today?
SO: Yes, we are. And I also initiated a campaign, called the Next Century Fund, to make sure that we had the means to make possible the core activities that we do which goes directly to the artist and to the exhibition. And we are still in the midst of that. We’re a healthy organization. That’s also an advantage of being a small organization so that, when you do this kind of initiative, this goes to the program. We don’t have a large machinery to support.
TM: Janine told me that, while the Ren and the Arts Club, have historical connections, you are planning a new show collaboration in Spring of 2018. What will the concept be?
SO: Yes, we are. We are doing a solo presentation of Chicago artist, Richard Rezak. And while we are doing that show, Janine will do an outdoor sculpture of the same artist. TM: Have you thought of doing either a public lecture or an artist award?

SO: That has not been discussed. We focus more on the program— so, the artists that come here and the history. We are putting all of our money and our time into those exhibitions. That’s our focus. We don’t have a prize connected to that. Every show at the Ren is a prize!

Tom Mullaney Chicago Editor (retir’d)

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

Solveig Ovstebo’s pick of the five most
important events in the Renaissance Society
history are:
• A Selection of Works by Twentieth
Century Artists, 1934
• Mike Kelley, Three Projects: Half a Man,
From My Institution to Yours, and Pay for
Your Pleasure, 1988
• Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Traveling, 1994,
• Gonzalez-Torres, Black Is, Black Ain’t,
2008
• Nora Schultz, parrottree—building for
bigger than real, 2014

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