The Art Institute of Chicago History
Chicago, Illinois 60603-6110
Telephone: (312) 443-3600
Fax: (312) 443-0849
Founded: 1882 as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts
Sales: $161 million (1998)
NAIC: 71211 Museums
The purposes for which the Art Institute of Chicago is formed are: to found, build, maintain, and operate museums, schools, libraries of art, and theatres; to provide support facilities in connection therewith; to conduct appropriate activities conducive to the artistic development of the region; and to conduct and participate in appropriate activities of national and international significance.
Chicago's premier cultural institution and one of the greatest art museums in the world, The Art Institute of Chicago welcomed more than 1.7 million visitors in 1998. Its collection holds more than 300,000 objects, including an important set of European paintings, a wealth of antiquities, a wide variety of non-Western art, and a substantial archive of architectural sketches and drawings. In addition to the permanent collection, the museum presents revolving exhibits in the largest temporary exhibition space in the country. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is often regarded as the best art education program in the country. The Art Institute's theater in residence, the Goodman, is a prominent cultural attraction in its own right.
In 1866, the Chicago Academy of Design was formed by a group of artists. When this organization foundered, the businessmen who made up its board of trustees set up a parallel organization, the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which was incorporated in 1879. The creation of an art museum was vital to a city that was recovering from a disastrous fire eight years earlier and struggling to rebuild itself as a great American metropolis. By 1885, when the museum's first quarters were built, by John Wellborn Root of the firm (Daniel) Burnham and Root, the name had changed to The Art Institute of Chicago.
The year 1893 saw Chicago's World Columbian Exposition, a major fair designed to show off the reborn, rebuilt Chicago. Afterwards, The Art Institute moved into the "World's Congresses" hall, a structure built for the exposition by the firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, where it has remained ever since. This Michigan Avenue structure, with its two bronze lions standing guard out front, is one of the city's most recognizable sights. The lions, sculpted by Edward Kerney, were added in 1894. The Ryerson and Burnham libraries were added in 1901, confirming the institution's educational and archival commitment.
Building a Collection in the Early 1900s
In 1906, on the recommendation of the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, the museum paid $40,000 for El Greco's Assumption of the Virgin, a 13-foot-high canvas dated 1577 that went a long way towards establishing the museum's reputation. In 1922 Bertha Palmer, widow of the merchant Potter Palmer, left a collection that included an early Monet titled The River. This bequest would form the core of the Art Institute's Impressionist catalogue. Four years later, Frederic Clay Bartlett donated a trove of paintings that included Vincent van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles as well as Georges Seurat's Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte, which would later become perhaps the single most popular picture in the Art Institute. Another close contender for this distinction, however, was Grant Wood's American Gothic, depicting a stern-looking farm couple, which came into the collection in 1930, the same year it was painted. Martin Antoine Ryerson, who served as vice-president of the Art Institute and who has been called the single greatest benefactor of the museum, died in 1932, willing his diverse collection to it.
Chicago banker Charles L. Hutchinson served as president of the Art Institute's board of trustees from 1882 to 1924, and during his tenure he helped the museum move beyond its origins as a provincial organization, in the direction of a world-class institution. Hutchinson saw social reform and improvement as an essential component of the museum's mission, and during his tenure he saw to it that the Art Institute would find its place in the public life of the city. William M. R. French worked alongside Hutchinson, serving as director, curator of painting and sculpture, and director of the School of the Art Institute. French's most significant action was organizing the International Exhibition of Modern Art (also known as the Armory Show) in 1913, a show intended to introduce modern European art to the relatively unreceptive Chicago audience. The futurists and cubists included in the exhibition were branded degenerates and charlatans in the local press, and from that moment on the Art Institute struggled with how best to present challenging art without alienating the public.
When Robert B. Harshe took over as director in 1921, he remarked, "Our present policy of acquiring works of art, depending as it does on what is offered us ... leads us into casual and haphazard acquisitions." The 1920s were a prosperous time in America, and while the acquisitions overseen by Harshe may have been "haphazard," they helped to attract legions of museumgoers. By 1933, due to nationwide economic troubles, several programs sponsored by the museum had to be curtailed. Nevertheless, Chicago mounted another spectacular international exposition in 1933, the Century of Progress, and the Art Institute's parallel exhibition attracted 1.5 million visitors between June 1 and November 1. One of the highlights of the show was James Whistler's Arrangement in Gray and Black: The Artist's Mother, on loan from the Louvre.
Educating the Public under Daniel Rich: 1938--58
Harshe's successor, Daniel Catton Rich, joined the museum staff as editor of its Bulletin. When he took over as director in 1938, he vowed to strengthen the museum's educational programs and its curatorial staff. A renewed effort to connect to the public--via lectures, tours, and film programs--characterized Rich's tenure. Rich hired Katharine Kuh, one of the first important women in American museum history, and she oversaw the Gallery of Art Interpretation and eventually became the Art Institute's first curator of modern painting and sculpture. In 1947, the museum held the first major Georgia O'Keeffe retrospective, and in similar exhibits it helped broaden the canon of Western Art. Daniel Catton Rich also saw the importance of diversifying the type of art on exhibition; the Department of Primitive Art (which would later be renamed the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas) opened in 1957.
The postwar years saw a series of expansive exhibitions focusing on themes including French tapestry, art from Vienna, and religious art, as well as single-artist retrospectives of van Gogh, Cézanne, and Seurat. These shows were the forerunners of the "blockbuster" extravaganzas that came to characterize American museum life and economics in the 1980s and 1990s.
In presenting both "hard" and "easy" art, Rich's Art Institute of Chicago managed to challenge the public without ever losing its favor, though an exhibition of "Abstract and Surrealist American Art" in 1947 became a lightning rod for reactionary criticism, and Rich was even accused of communist tendencies. Such obstacles appear not have interfered with the museum's successful campaign of 1951--52, during which $2 million was raised. This was the first time the Art Institute appealed directly to the public for financial support. In 1958, his last year as director, in addition to mounting the Seurat retrospective, Rich also declined to exhibit a selection of watercolors by Winston Churchill. The museum, he explained, was not in the business of exhibiting work by amateurs.
By this time, the Art Institute's painting collection was impressive. Its greatest strengths were in nineteenth-century French paintings and old Flemish and old Italian works. As John Maxon wrote in his introductory essay to a 1970 catalogue, "The collection does not cover the whole history of Western painting with equal emphasis. But what it covers, it covers gloriously."
Expanding the Institute's Reach: 1970s--80s
In the 1970s, the Art Institute undertook construction of a large addition, extending the building eastward to Columbus Avenue. This addition was completed in 1977 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the city's most famous architectural firm. Expansion of another kind continued as James N. Wood became director of the Art Institute in 1980 and made it his mission to broaden the historical scope of the Art Institute's exhibition program, moving beyond the now-familiar strengths of the European painting collection. Departments of photography and architecture were also formed during his tenure. In an afterword to the catalogue of an exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the museum's relocation to the Michigan Avenue address, Wood gave an eloquent summary of his vision as director: "I am convinced that a democratic society will and must always demand equal access to the experience of original works of art."
Whatever else Wood accomplished as director, it is likely that he will be best remembered for the Claude Monet retrospective of 1995. Monet had long been one of the museum's most popular artists, and the advertising campaign and celebration of the exhibit in the media created a furious demand for tickets. Nearly a million people came to see the show in a four-month period, and it had an substantial impact on the Art Institute, on the city of Chicago, and on art museums all over the world. Sales to the public of year-long memberships to the Art Institute skyrocketed from 90,000 to more than 150,000, and the gift shop netted $1.5 million--a four-month total that approximately equaled the shop's net of the entire previous year. Monet posters, umbrellas, and coffee mugs sold in incredible numbers, inspiring other museums to market their own blockbuster exhibits in similar ways.
While memberships and gift shop sales were important to the Art Institute's financial health, donations continued to be the museum's primary avenue for acquiring works. The Japanese government presented the Art Institute with $1 million in 1989, a gift that assisted in the remodeling of the Galleries of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Art, and in the construction of an unusually serene gallery for Japanese screens, which was designed by Tadao Ando. Corporate donors also became increasingly important to the Institute. The Sara Lee Corporation, for example, would make a sizable gift in 1998 of a selection of late 19th-century and early 20-century art, including important works by Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Henri Matisse, and Alberto Giacometti.
While painting was the Art Institute's forte, it offered many other attractions, and the specializations tended to reflect the interests of its benefactors. A partial listing of its deepest reserves would include West African sculpture, Japanese woodblock prints donated by the Buckingham family, decorative paperweights donated by Arthur Rubloff, and a reconstruction of the trading room from the Chicago Stock Exchange (designed in 1893--94 by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan).
Also during this time, the museum followed a national trend of catering to children with the Kraft General Foods Education Center designed, according to the Institute, "to present accessible art experiences to young people"; the center opened in time for the first day of school in the fall of 1992.
The Late 1990s and Beyond
American museums welcomed 225 million visitors in 1997. This figure seemed to contradict the idea that Americans had become a stay-at-home culture in which television and the Internet represented the sole forms of entertainment. Nevertheless, the museum did face the challenge of staying relevant at the turn of the century, balancing its obligation to enlighten the public with concessions to its short attention spans and diminished cultural literacy. The Art Institute took a leadership role in determining this new course, maintaining a sense of its own legacy as it did. The historian Neil Harris wrote, "The Art Institute's deep identification with the life of Chicago and the Midwest, the fierce pride it has elicited (and demanded) from donors and supporters, its characteristic self-promotion, and its efforts, more than once in every generation, to reinvent its mission and methods, are among the ingredients that have supplied its special character."
In 1999, The Art Institute of Chicago announced plans for a sculpture garden and another expansion, to be designed by internationally famous architect Renzo Piano. This announcement made the Art Institute one of 60 museums in the country enlarging their quarters at the end of the 20th century. This museum boom has been attributed to steady increases in the stock market and to the aging of the population, not to mention a general atmosphere of public-spiritedness that has particularly benefited museums. Architecture critic Herbert Muschamp has analyzed the phenomenon, writing, "No longer merely the ornament of power, culture is a power in its own right." After listing such cultural locales as concert halls and botanic gardens, he asserted, "The museum occupies a privileged place in the hierarchical scheme of things."
- The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Special Issue, One Hundred Years at the Art Institute: A Centennial Celebration, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1993.
- Dobrzynsky, Judith H. "They're Building a Lot More Than Their Collections," New York Times, April 21, 1999, p. D13.
- Harris, Neil, Chicago's Dream, A World's Treasure: The Art Institute, 1893-1993, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1993.
- Maxon, John, The Art Institute of Chicago, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1970.
- Muschamp, Herbert M. "Culture's Power Houses: The Museum Becomes the Engine of Urban Redesign," New York Times, April 21, 1999, p. D1.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 29. St. James Press, 1999.