By Susie Allen | Images courtesy of The Renaissance Society
Early in her tenure as director of the Renaissance Society, Eva Watson Schütze laid out a bold ambition for the young museum. “Part of the program of the Renaissance Society is to stimulate study of the art of the present time, the new renaissance,” Schütze wrote in 1929.
In the ensuing decades, the Renaissance Society, which celebrates its centennial this year, has both fulfilled and expanded on the hopes of Schütze and its other early founders. The Ren presented early exhibitions by artists who later became household names—Paul Klee, Diego Rivera, Louise Bourgeois, Jeff Koons, and Kara Walker, to name only a few—and, along the way, earned a reputation as one of the country’s most important contemporary arts institutions.
Beyond a gift for spotting talent, what sets the Ren apart is an environment that encourages risk-taking and growth, according to Executive Director and Chief Curator Solveig Øvstebø.
“Rather than, ‘What have you done?,’ we ask [artists], ‘What is it that you want to do?,” she says.
The Renaissance Society will honor that legacy of experimentation during its centennial celebrations, which include a multi-site exhibition of material from its archives and the publication of a collection of newly commissioned essays on its history. The Ren’s centennial concludes Artennial, a yearlong celebration of major anniversaries in the arts.
The Ren began in 1915 with a modest proposal by James Spencer Dickerson, secretary of the University’s Board of Trustees. Dickerson had spotted a portrait of the poet Robert Browning that he thought would make a good addition to Harper Library. “I thought it might be possible to organize at the University an organization … to be called ‘Friends of Art of the University of Chicago,’ which would obtain funds for such a purpose and for other works of art,” he wrote.
President Harry Pratt Judson supported the idea and convened a committee of faculty members and donors, who came together to, as they wrote in 1920, “[bring] to the University some of the most beautiful things in the world.”
The Ren found its footing in 1927 with the appointment of Agnes C. Gale as director and a 1928 exhibition of works by Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso that spurred a rapid growth in membership and interest in the museum.
Schütze, who succeeded Gale, deepened the Ren’s exploration of modernist and radical art. Schütze, an accomplished photographer in her own right, oversaw exhibitions that upended the traditional conception of fine art, including one show that featured chalk drawings by South Side schoolchildren. She also curated a pioneering exhibition focused on American architecture and the skyscraper.
By the 1970s, the Ren was poised for transformation. The opening of the Smart Museum of Art in 1974 raised questions about how the Ren—a smaller, non-collecting museum—fit into the campus art ecosystem.
The Renaissance Society found its answer in Susanne Ghez, who rose from a part-time employee to the museum’s director in 1974. An entirely self-taught curator, Ghez discovered she had a rare ability to communicate with artists.
“In my whole practice, trust has been an important word, establishing trust between the artist and myself,” Ghez said in an oral history interview with the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. “If you are able to communicate to an artist that you believe in them, you believe in the work that they're doing … Out of that comes amazing, amazing results.”
In her 39 years as director, Ghez curated more than 160 shows—among them, several exhibitions by artists who were or would later become members of the University of Chicago visual arts faculty, including Catherine Sullivan, Jessica Stockholder, and William Pope.L.
A symbiotic relationship with the University remains an essential part of the Ren’s identity.
As an institution that believes in creating conversation around its exhibitions, “being here in this intellectual hub … is very valuable for the Ren,” says Øvstebø, who succeeded Ghez as director in 2013. But the exchange goes both ways: “We hope to contribute … artists' perspectives, artists' ways of communicating.”
Tucked away in Cobb Hall, the Renaissance Society’s exhibition space is modest and its staff is lean—qualities that Øvstebø believes actually work to its advantage. “We can move fast, we can change our mind, we can follow the idea of the artists. That creates a certain kind of flexibility that I feel is important to develop and to cherish for this institution.”
As the Ren begins its second century, Øvstebø wants to provide new opportunities to engage with the ideas being explored at the museum, through publications, artist talks, and lectures.
But above all, she hopes to protect the scrappy, against-the-grain quality that has always set the Ren apart. “If the Renaissance Society could contribute to dissonance in the art world today, I would be very happy,” she says.
Originally published on November 16, 2015.