Art Institute of Chicago

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ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO. Dualities have defined the history of the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), a museum and school (The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, or SAIC) in ambivalent relationship with one another and their host community. AIC's iconic Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge building on Michigan Avenue, erected on debris from the great fire of 1871, first served the Columbian Exposition, whose congresses it housed in 1893 before AIC occupied it at year's end. This nearly windowless structure on the edge of the frenetic central Loop served as a refuge from urban disorder. Yet like the surrounding noise, filth, and labor conflict, AIC was a by product of railroad development, meat processing, and other forms of commerce that fueled Chicago's growth.

In 1866 sculptor Leonard W. Volk and other artists formed the Chicago Academy of Design. Partly as a result of losses caused by the fire, the academy encountered financial difficulties and solicited help from business leaders. Employing some sleight of hand, these businessmen created in 1879 a new organization, the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, renamed The Art Institute of Chicago in 1882. Its charter provided that it be "privately administered for the public benefit by a Board of Trustees." Under the leadership of the grain merchant and banker Charles L. Hutchinson, president of that board from 1882 to 1924, AIC's art school became the nation's best enrolled and its museum, with a half-million visitors by 1899, developed the largest membership. In addition to moving AIC to its permanent home in 1893, Hutchinson attracted distinguished faculty, including sculptor Lorado Taft, and enlarged the museum's collections. Major donors included Martin A. Ryerson and Bertha Honoré Palmer, who with painter Mary Cassatt's advice acquired a superb collection of nineteenth-century French paintings.

Along with others who followed Hutchinson, museum directors Daniel Catton Rich (1938–1958) and, in the decades after 1980, James Wood, strengthened curatorial areas such as Prints and Drawings, Architecture, and African and Amerindian Art and museum education, and brought square footage to more than ten times its 1893 total. Expansion occurred in every decade except the 1930s and 1940s. Examples of growth include the Ryerson Library (1901); the Ferguson Building (1958), whose funding with monies designated for commissioning "statuary and monuments" drew legal challenges; new facilities for the SAIC (1977); and several wings and buildings over the following quarter century. The museum developed outstanding collections in numerous areas, such as Impressionism, Flemish and Italian painting, and—with the help of the Buckingham family—prints and drawings and Asian art.

Although conservative aesthetic and social impulses guided many of the trustees, the institution helped expand definitions of what constituted significant art, as in its 1895 exhibition of works by Claude Monet and Édouard Manet, and in the 1906 purchase of Assumption of the Virgin (1577) by El Greco, then a largely neglected master. Amid great controversy, AIC in 1913 presented a distillation of New York City's Armory Show, which gave tens of thousands of Chicagoans their first encounter with Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and other avant-garde artists. Only a few modernist works entered the collection in the next fifteen years. However, with gifts such as those from Frederic Clay Bartlett, which included Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand-Jatte (1884) in 1926, Arthur Jerome Eddy's 1931 bequest of Expressionist works by Wassily Kandinsky, and others, AIC developed a major modern collection, which also included important American paintings, some by former SAIC students such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Archibald J. Motley, and Grant Wood. Appointment in the 1940s of the innovative gallery owner Katherine Kuh as a curator indicated increased commitment to exhibiting challenging contemporary work.

In 2001 the museum's ten curatorial departments included some with continuity to the founding era, and others such as Photography that reflected the broadened definition of museum-worthy art. Changes in cultural perceptions led in 1956 to formation of a Department of Primitive Art, later renamed the Department of African and Amerindian Art. Some areas diminished in importance. Plaster reproductions of classical works, considered an important aspect of the collections in the 1880s, had been removed from display by the 1950s. The museum achieved a higher level of professionalism when a comprehensive exhibition held in conjunction with the 1933–1934 Century of Progress Exposition suggested the wisdom of arranging AIC's collections in a systematic, integrated manner rather than displaying together all works given by one donor.

Although trustees assumed a less direct role in curatorial and curricular decisions as the museum became more professional, a seat on AIC's board continued to be one of the highest distinctions available to Chicago's social and economic elite. Support from large corporations such as Kraft General Foods and Ameritech became increasingly important. In 2001 the largest sources of support were gifts and endowment income and school revenues, mostly from tuition. Other sources were museum admissions and memberships; and public funds, which became available when AIC's building was erected on Chicago Park District Land in 1893 and were later supplemented by state and federal programs.

The provocations of contemporary art, in conjunction with identity politics, sparked controversies in the 1980s and 1990s that threatened but did not end this public support. As always, balancing the goals of building an international art collection and serving the needs of a local arts community presented challenges and some resentments, as when in the 1980s AIC abandoned its Chicago and Vicinity show, once a regular event. Increased emphasis in the contemporary art world on work that responded to the concerns of particular communities, some outside the traditional arts audience, created new possibilities for collaboration and conflict.


Chicago History 8, no. 1 (spring 1979). Special issue on The Art Institute of Chicago.

Gilmore, Roger, ed. Over a Century: A History of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1866–1981. Chicago: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1982.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Culture and the City: Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago from the 1880s to 1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Prince, Sue Ann. The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde: Modernism in Chicago, 1910–1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

George H.RoederJr.

See alsoArt: Painting, Photography ; Museums .