May 12, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 18

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    Renaissance Society: The First 75 Years

    A visitor browsing through an exhibition at the Renaissance Society might not realize that throughout its 75-year history the museum has consistently shown works by artists whose names later became household words: Picasso, Miro, O'Keeffe, Chagall, Warhol, Paschke and Mapplethorpe, to name a few.

    "The board of directors thought this history might be of interest to people," said Joe Scanlan, Assistant Director of the Renaissance Society. "There isn't a permanent collection at the Renaissance Society -- there isn't a room where you can get a sense of the contributions the museum has made to the history of art. It's always sort of existed in its own vacuum. So when Thomas Heagy became president of the Renaissance Society board in 1989, he became the driving force behind a project to create a book that would be like a permanent collection for the museum."

    "A History of The Renaissance Society: The First Seventy-Five Years," a book four years in the making, chronicles the vision and endurance of this small museum, which was founded at the University in 1915 and has been located here ever since.

    A comprehensive document and reference work, the book describes the museum's history and also depicts the course of contemporary art.

    "The Renaissance Society has always been at the forefront of the art scene," said art collector Lindy Bergman, to whom the book is dedicated. Bergman and her husband, Edwin Bergman, former Chairman of the University's Board of Trustees, endowed the society's Bergman Gallery in Cobb Hall in 1979. "The book is significant because it shows that the Renaissance Society has consistently maintained a commitment to art that is innovative, controversial and often difficult."

    The book is not, however, intended to be an esoteric work. "This is a document geared toward the kind of person who's interested in art, but is not a professional in the art world," Scanlan said.

    The Renaissance Society was founded in April 1915 by a group of University of Chicago faculty members who wanted to form "a society to stimulate the love of the beautiful and to enrich the life of the community through the cultivation of the arts." Early leaders of the Renaissance Society include its first president, James Angell, who was Dean of the Faculty and Chairman of Psychology, and J. Lawrence Laughlin, who was Chairman of Political Economy as well as head of the society's founding committee.

    By 1929, when Eva Watson Schuetze was elected society president, the Renaissance Society had found its niche. Schuetze determined that it would "stimulate study of art at the present time, the new renaissance."

    Susanne Ghez, Director of the Renaissance Society, has maintained that focus during her 20-year tenure. "I knew when I came here that we had to focus more than ever on the vanguard and really make that our specialty, our strength, our forte," Ghez said. "We decided we would only show the work of living artists, and we would strive to maintain an international connection.

    "It's very important to think of the Renaissance Society as a laboratory," she said. "If science is any model, then we ought to be experimenting even more. We should take more risks."

    Unconventional programming, though, has not always drawn large numbers of people to the gallery. "If you're always showing contemporary work," Scanlan said, "it's hard to have people believe that what you're showing now has the potential to accrue the same importance as the work you were showing 50 years ago.

    "It's difficult," he said, "for people to look at a work of Ed Paschke's, for example, and then go back and look at Matisse and believe that Matisse at one time was not so well known, or that the paintings were suspect in terms of decency or quality. That's the hardest thing to understand."

    "Our responsibility is to take the initial step," said Ghez, "and we're in the perfect environment to do that here. This university is about the exploration of ideas, and we're about the exploration of ideas. All we ask is for people to think about the art, to give it some time and some consideration. We just want people to realize that it's important to be open and to look."

    "A History of The Renaissance Society: The First Seventy-Five Years," edited by Scanlan, is available in cloth cover and paperback at the Renaissance Society on the fourth floor of Cobb Hall. The 200-page book includes 103 images. The book was made possible through the support of the Joyce Foundation, LaSalle National Bank, the Polk Brothers Foundation and Joseph Randall Shapiro.

    -- Carmen Marti