In 1998, Raymond Pettibon, a punk and cartoon inspired artist, painted a mural—baseball players in motion, under the words “no pepper games”—as part of an exhibition with the Renaissance Society. The mural could not leave with the rest of the exhibition. The legal rights to display the mural are complicated, and the Society does not collect the art it displays. Rather than paint over the mural, they sealed it behind drywall after the exhibition closed. It apparently remains there, in the hallway outside of the Renaissance Society’s gallery. Things like this accrue in a hundred-year-old institution: the Renaissance Society’s history, in the form of its grey-boxed archives, now covers walls within its offices; in the hallway by its gallery, a wall covers part of its history.
The Renaissance Society’s academic founders had an idealistic conception of the role of art in society when they met one hundred years ago to discuss beginning the Society. An invitation to the June 3 meeting said its purpose was “to determine the suitability of forming a society to stimulate the love of the beautiful and to enrich the life of the community through the cultivation of the arts.”
The seminal Armory show’s arrival in Chicago effectively introduced modern art to Chicago’s public; Jean Fulton, a Chicago-based writer, points out in his contribution to a book covering the Renaissance Society’s first seventy-five years that this show anticipated the foundation of the Renaissance Society, now an aggressively contemporary institution, by two years. Chicago’s reaction to the Armory show was ostensibly aggrieved but apparently interested—Chicago newspapers tore it to pieces, but a huge portion of the city’s population found its way to the show. The reaction to the Armory show indicated that there might be a place for a showcase of modern art in Chicago.
But it would be some time before the Renaissance Society began to fulfill that role. Its founders’ conception was conservative, in line with the instincts of the city that had vocally objected to the Armory show. Its earliest exhibitions focused on art history exhibitions; its exhibitions and lectures about then-contemporary art retained a conservative bent.
“When it initially started—I mean, the university was a pretty conservative place—and it matched that. The language around that early starting point… was quite conservative, and even our starters might have been hostile to modernism; certainly the city was,” said Karen Reimer, Director of Publications and Registrar at the Society. She is editing a book chronicling the Society’s first hundred years, which will be released in conjunction with the centennial.
The University of Chicago was “the community” the Society was initially meant to enrich. Its membership was restricted to “member or friends of the University”; the salaries for its employees came from the school, as did the space it operated out of. The Society is based out of a UofC building to this day. At the Society’s foundation and through its first decades, the UofC’s art programs were underdeveloped or non-existent. The Society, it was hoped, would fill this gap with lectures and edifying exhibitions.
The program of Eva Watson-Schütze, the Society’s first exhibition director, would define the institution as a home for contemporary art. A member of an innovative movement in photography, Watson-Schütze had not been satisfied by her traditional art education. By the time she became director in 1929, hostility toward modernism was no longer at fever pitch in the city and the interest that the Armory show had attracted was no longer paired with outrage. By shifting toward modernism, the Renaissance Society joined other Chicago art organizations like the South Side Community Art Center, the Hyde Park Art Center, and the downtown-based Chicago Art Club, with whom it shared speakers and exhibitions.
Watson-Schütze brought several artists and pieces to the Society for their Chicago debuts, especially through the abstractionist exhibition “A Selection of Works by 20th Century Artists” (1934). The exhibition included Piet Mondrian’s clean, bright rectangles and Alexander Calder’s dangling, wire-framed mobiles (Calder would have his first solo exhibition at the Society a year later), among other now-renowned artists. Fulton quotes her first bulletin to the Society as reading “part of the program of the Renaissance Society is to stimulate study of the art of the present time, the new Renaissance.”
Watson-Schütze died before her greatest achievement could come together: a logistically complicated display of paintings by the French abstractionist Fernand Léger (1935). After the time of Watson-Schütze and her successor, Inez Cunningham Stark, the Society saw a drift from the aggressively contemporary exhibitions that had marked their tenures. Constrained by budget problems, it began to take what it could, often in collaboration with the UofC’s art programs.
The Society’s budget has been limited since its foundation. Watson-Schütze’s Léger exhibit, for instance, incited a confused tangle of telegrams when an apparently over-eager Léger shipped the contents of the exhibition from France to New York, on their way to Chicago; a friend of the Society, James Johnson Sweeney, had intimated to Léger that the Society might be interested in an exhibition, but had not made any commitment or definite plans. The Society did not have the resources to insure and transport the exhibition at short notice. As of Watson-Schütze’s death, it was not clear that the show would go on at all. (It eventually arranged to share the costs, and the exhibition, with other American arts institutions.)
“You look at that middle stretch—through the Depression, through the War—we’re poor as dirt, there’s no money, all the documents say ‘are we going under this year.’ ” said Reimer. “And I think it became much more catch-as-catch-can. I think it was still an important thing in the city, but maybe not the cutting edge of contemporary art.”
Susanne Ghez, who spent forty years as exhibition director starting in 1974, would again sharpen the Society’s focus on the most contemporary of contemporary art. Ghez would often bring over artists for their debut solo shows in America or Chicago, and the Society gained a reputation for anticipating upcoming trends in the art world, according to Reimer and Stein.
“She was really interested in very contemporary art; really the newest stuff, the stuff that hasn’t been seen widely, maybe hasn’t been theorized widely; I think it kind of became a goal to be a very experimental place, and that has kind of been our focus ever since,” said Reimer.
Her curation was particularly important for the early development of conceptual art, which prioritizes the ideas behind the art over its execution or permanence. When discussing Ghez’s tenure, Jordan Stein, the Society’s current curator for special projects and the organizer of an archival exhibition for the centennial, began enthusiastically tapping one by one at the gray boxes of records, organized by exhibition, that make up the Renaissance Society’s archive.
“Susanne started here—“Contemporary Still Life”  was the first show that she did,” said Stein. “And then if you trace it just for the next few years: Joseph Kosuth , Robert Smithson , Ideas in Sculpture , Dan Graham , Lawrence Weiner , Hans Haacke . This is like a murderers’ row of the origins of conceptual art. And I think that origin stories were really Susanne’s bread and butter, when she got here, and it’s shocking to think how young that work was at the time.”
When Ghez took office, the Renaissance Society’s relationship with the UofC was becoming more complicated. The school had just opened the Smart Museum, a more extensive collecting institution that would serve much of the role on campus the Society had originally played. In the 1970s, the Society would separate from the university: its employees no longer worked for the UofC, and financial aid stopped flowing, although they were not paying rent for their space on the fourth floor of Cobb Hall, a much-used academic building. It would become the Renaissance Society at , not of the University of Chicago.
By the end of Ghez’s long tenure, the Society had become a rare kind of institution on the forward edge of the American art world. Since its beginning, it had been an in-between institution: neither a large museum nor a small gallery nor an artist-run space. This allowed the Society to provide institutional support for artists without losing “flexibility,” according to Anna Searle Jones, Director of Communications for the Renaissance Society. This is partially because the Society has avoided collecting any of the art it displays—see the aforementioned dry-walled mural. A permanent collection would force the Society to come to terms with administrative, storage, and maintenance hassles, and tie a forward-looking organization to last year’s programming decisions.
And the Society’s relationship to Chicago? The society was founded by the UofC with what was, at the time, a contemporary Chicagoan’s idea of the purposes of art; both that founding relationship and conception have changed over the years. Cobb Hall, the home of the Renaissance Society, is apparently a run-of-the-mill academic building. As Reimer pointed out, the gallery is not conducive to street traffic or impulse visits; according to her, some visitors cannot find their way up to the fourth floor even once they have been given directions.
“In some ways it’s been better known in Europe than in America. I’m not sure why exactly that would be; maybe it’s a prophet in your hometown, or something, but our reputation there has always been very high [there],” said Reimer. “People ask us about our audience, and we sometimes say we don’t have an audience that walks in off the street, we have an audience that comes in from the airport.”
Before being hired to work on the centennial exhibition, Stein was one of a group of people who were familiar with the Society and its reputation from a distance, without having visited it in Chicago.
“I can say…having lived in California for the last decade, the Renaissance Society is a place that I would always check on, even though I’d never been here. I think a lot of people have that relationship from afar. It’s a very special place, that, in a way, has almost been responsible for predicting the future of contemporary art, which is something of an oxymoron,” said Stein.
The centennial schedule will provide opportunities to reflect on the Society’s history in Chicago and its history in the broader art world, among other exhibitions and events. A three-day symposium will recognize the Society’s international profile by hosting an international group to consider the role and conduct of art galleries; a different panel will gather the art institutions that hosted Gertrude Stein during her visit to Chicago in 1934 in order to reflect upon an important moment in the development of modernism in Chicago.
Correction, June 8, 2015: An earlier version of the story stated that the budget for the Society came from the school. The school provided the salary for the employees and the space. It also stated that it will curate this first-ever solo exhibition of Paul McCarthy’s work in Chicago. It will co-curate this first-ever solo exhibition of Paul McCarthy’s work in Chicago with Solveig Øvstebø, the Society’s current Executive Director and Chief Curator.
SELECTED EVENTS FROM THE CENTENNIAL
Seductive Exacting Realism
Sep. 10-Oct. 8 at Renassiance Society Gallery, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Artist Irena Haiduk’s interview with Serbian student activist-turned-consulting-
Ankhrasmation: The Language Scores, 1967-2015
Exhibition: Oct. 11-29 at the Renaissance Society Gallery; Panel: Oct. 24, 4pm at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; Concert with the Golden Quartet: Oct. 24, 7pm at Logan Center; Solo Concert: Oct. 25, 3pm at Renaissance Society Gallery. This will be the first comprehensive exhibit of Wadada Leo Smith’s striking alternate notation system, which guides improvisation through a colorful set of pictograms. Keeping with a long record of putting on talks and performances, the Society will also host two concerts and a panel discussion about Leo Smith’s notation system. Hamza Walker, Director of Education and Associate Curator at the Renaissance Society, who has showcased audio performances during his more than twenty years at the Society, will return from a two-year leave of absence to co-curate the exhibition.
Paul McCarthy Drawing and Collages
Nov. 8-Jan. 24 at Renaissance Society Gallery. Susanne Ghez spent forty years shaping the programming of the Renaissance Society before ending her directorship in 2013. Ghez is still active in the Chicago art world; she will return to the Society to curate this first-ever solo exhibition of Paul McCarthy’s work in Chicago. McCarthy is best known for his sculptures and performance art—this will be a relatively rare chance to see his two-dimensional work.
Oct-Dec. For much of its history, the Renaissance Society has wandered from one UofC classroom or campus corner to another: Wieboldt 205, now Romance Languages Offices; Goodspeed 108, now a piano practice room. This exhibition of the Renaissance Society’s archival material will not pretend that its history can be fixed to a single place. The Society is looking into dividing the exhibition between the Society’s former homes.
Reading and Panel: Gertrude Stein in Chicago
Wednesday, Nov. 11, 7pm. The Renaissance Society, the Arts Club of Chicago, and the Poetry Foundation formed an important part of modernism’s vanguard in 1934, when modernist writer Gertrude Stein was hosted by both the Renaissance Society and the Arts Club. At this panel discussion, historians and writers will put her visit in context.
Symposium: In Practice
Friday, Nov. 20-Sunday, Nov. 22. The art institutions most analogous to the Renaissance Society—smaller than a museum, but with institutional strength and history—exist in Europe, not in America. The Renaissance Society is in talks with an international group of experts and practitioners to arrange a symposium that would consider the roles that the Renaissance Society and similar art institutions can play. During the event, a book chronicling the Renaissance Society’s first hundred years will be launched.