“The Arts Club of Chicago at 100: Arts and Culture 1916-2016” is not a particularly inviting title but the book itself is. Part institutional biography, part historical reflection, the book offers a thorough—if not particularly critical—history of an esteemed cultural body, its reinventions through the years, and its lasting legacy in Chicago’s art world.
The book, edited by Jenine Mileaf, the club’s Executive Director, and Susan F. Rosen, collects thematic essays about the Club’s century-long history of supporting a large variety of art forms—visual art, architecture, music, dance, and theatre—alongside an exhaustive history of art exhibitions divided by period. Footnotes are consigned to the back pages to facilitate reading but the text is annotated by images. Photos of art exhibits, members conversing, and the club’s various homes through the years create an immersive tale.
The Club’s early years—when its commitment to experimental art was more unusual—are particularly engrossing. It was formed after Chicago’s mixed response to the infamous International Exhibit of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show, at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1913. The Club was created as a gathering of “art lovers and art workers” three years later, under the leader- ship of a group, which included AIC trustees, to support the period’s more “radical art.”
Led by a series of visionary women presidents (Alice Roullier and Rue Winterbotham Shaw) and art curators, it brought work by Picasso and Matisse to Chicago long before they were in vogue and formed strong partnerships with European giants like the Bauhaus and architect Mies van der Rohe.
It sponsored lectures by influential artists like Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp and purchased avant-garde art, most famously Brancusi’s Golden Bird. Exhibitions, lectures, and performances—often public but sometimes only for members—defined the organization.
By 1931, the Chicago Evening Post’s art critic,
C.J. Bulliet, described the Arts Club as a pioneering educational force, bringing progressive art onto common ground. “Through its activities, Chicago, more surely than any other American city…has been kept aware of what is going on in the world beyond its gates.”
For several decades, the group’s primary focus was modernist art, but eventually modernism became corporate and common. In his essay, Thomas Dyja describes the 1967 placement of La Femme, a soaring Picasso sculpture, on Daley Plaza, beside a government building as an achievement for the Arts Club. With that renewal of the avant-garde spirit at the heart of the organization, the club sought newer and more radical experiments in art.
Today, 104 years after The Armory Show, The Arts Club of Chicago is no longer the same pioneering force. It is just one of many institutions invested in contemporary art, most more well- endowed than the club. It’s the more social, salon aspect that now sets the club apart.
The Arts Club was always a social group as much as an exhibitor of art but the book does not dwell on that. The social aspect comes to light most in moments of critique. Essayists note in passing the exclusive nature of the group where high society members enjoyed luxurious meals.
Social issues like race are also acknowledged: The group was glaringly ignorant about art being created in African-American circles, even in its own city, and actively denied black artists membership. But these comments are mere sentences in the larger text.
Yet, despite worries about exclusivity, formal- ly bringing people together accomplishes a lot. Architects and academics, poets and painters mingle in the group, discussing the developments of art and culture across territorial boundaries. Artists are among those sponsoring exhibits, performances, and purchases, an almost radical departure from the process that brings most art to the public. A long-held tradition also offers members the chance to exhibit their work once a year.
Perhaps more importantly, the group’s diverse membership connects “art lovers” with a history of patronage to creators. With federal arts budget cuts on the horizon, private investors matter more than ever. The club’s ability to impact the next century of art is hidden in the pages of essays but made clear in its final pages, “Acquisitions Since 1995.”
The Arts Club of Chicago has charted a long and impressive path in the last century. While today it is just a small part of the artistic world it nurtured and continues to support, its impact on American culture is certain. This volume is a loving tribute to the Arts Club’s illustrious past. One can only hope that Ms. Mileaf can chart an equally celebrated future.
“The Arts Club of Chicago at 100: Arts and Culture 1916-2016” is published by the University of Chicago Press, 2016
Evangeline Reid is completing her studies at the University of Chicago, where she studies English literature and art history. An editor and writer for The Chicago Maroon and Grey City Magazine, she has covered art and culture in Chicago since 2013.
Volume 31 no 4 March / April 2017 pp 33 – 34