The Making of the David and Alfred Smart Museum at the University of Chicago
Max Koss, PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and Samuel H. Kress Foundation Provenance Research Fellow, explains how the Samuel H. Kress Foundation’s donation of 21 works to the University of Chicago served as foundation the Smart Museum’s collection and shaped the University’s Art History Department.
This post is adapted from Koss's talk given in May of this year as a part of Celebrating a Milestone: 75 Years of the National Gallery of Art and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.
Making a Museum
How does the 1973 gift of 15 paintings, 2 sculptures and 4 works of applied arts from the Kress Foundation still resonate in the history of the Smart Museum and study of the arts at the University of Chicago?
The gift was the culmination of decades-long efforts to establish a museum with its own art collection on campus and it was only secured after the commitment to build a museum was made. The foundation of such an institution had been opposed by the university administrators and trustees for quite some time, despite repeated attempts to create such a collection in the 1920s.
Building an Art Department
When the University of Chicago’s art department was founded in 1924, it focused on art making, and did not offer in depth art historical research at the graduate level. It was not until the 1930s and 40s that a focus on intellectual engagement with art history emerged. This shift was predicated on the appointment of German émigré scholars and with them, the import of the professional ethos of German Kunstgeschichte. Still, it was not until March 1963 that the plan to build an arts center, including an art museum, was put forth by the chairman of the Art Department, art historian Edward A. Maser. Four years later, in 1967, a $1 million gift from the Smart Family Foundation laid the groundwork for the building of a professional art gallery, connected to the Art Department by a courtyard. The Smart Gallery opened in 1974.
The role of the Kress Foundation
The question remains: how does the Kress gift fit into this narrative of the Smart Museum’s origins? To answer this, we have to go back to Lawrence, Kansas, ca. 1953, where Maser began his career as an art historian and curator, teaching and running the University of Kansas art museum. While in Kansas, Maser befriended the chancellor of the University of Kansas, Franklin D. Murphy, and in 1954, shortly after the two met, Murphy became a trustee of the Kress Foundation; later he would serve as the Foundation’s president from 1963–1984.
In 1960, Maser transferred to the University of Chicago to become chair of the Art Department Shortly after his move, in 1962, Murphy invited Maser to be a consultant to the Kress Foundation, where Maser would become one of the driving forces behind its famous fellowship program. This partnership between the Kress Foundation and the University of Chicago’s Art Department proved beneficial to both institutions. In a 1984 reflection about his involvement with the Kress Foundation, Maser wrote: “In my search for funds, as consultant to the Kress Foundation, I designed its program for the support of Art History in the form of subventions and fellowships chiefly to benefit the Department.” A 1962 letter Maser wrote to the Kress Foundation corroborates Maser’s concern for the arts at UChicago: “Needless to say, we would be delighted if there were any paintings that we could have. As I mentioned in an earlier letter, I hope that they would be paintings on canvas because we are certainly not set up here to handle paintings on panel.” Still, it would be another eleven years before UChicago would be ready to house a collection of their own.
In 1973 Maser found himself in the position of having a museum that needed to be filled. When the Smart Museum was finally built, the Kress had only a small number of objects left in its possession; it had already finished disposing of most of its art collection a decade earlier in 1961. However, the Foundation still had objects in its offices, and it agreed that the Smart Gallery would be a worthy recipient of this gift. It seems fair to suggest that it was Maser’s involvement with the Foundation in the ‘60s, and his personal relationship with Murphy that influenced the decision.
Kress Gift at the Smart
On October 23, 1974, the Smart Museum opened its doors to the public, with the Kress gift prominently displayed in the large open space. Upon entering, visitors would have seen a wall of Kress works (ill. 1), with the tabernacle (ill. 2) facing the door, its carved recession into space pulling viewers into the gallery. On the same wall one would have seen Bramantino’s Gathering of Manna, and, we can assume, its companion, his Raising of Lazarus. On the far left wall, Luca Cambiaso’s masterpiece, Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and St. Benedict, hung, paired with Santa Croce’s King David. Walking further into the gallery (ill. 3), and turning right the two cassone panels depicting Daphne Fleeing from Apollo (ill. 4) and Daphne Found Asleep by Apollo (ill. 5) would have come into view. While facing these works, one would see St. Jerome from an unknown Master on the right, and on the left, Jan Steen’s Game of Skittles (ill. 6).
To this day, the gift of the Kress collection remains an anchor of the Smart Museum’s collection of Western European Art. It is presented in a gallery aptly named after Edward and Inge Maser, and some Kress objects are on near permanent display, such as the Jan Steen or the ornate Farnese reliquary (ill. 7). These works and their influence on the study of art history at the University of Chicago is a testament to Maser’s and the Kress Foundations’ significant role in promoting the idea and practice of an object based art history.
Their efforts paid off and continue to do so. The Smart Museum today is one of Chicago’s leading cultural institutions and an important university art museum.
Come by the Smart and see works from the Kress Foundations gift on view with other works from the museum’s collection as a part of Conversations with the Collection: Belonging in the Landes gallery, as well as in the refreshed Maser Gallery of European Art.