Connecting, collecting, and the Smart

last edited on Sun. April 18 2021

For retired pediatrician Janis Mendelsohn, M.D., the Smart feels like home.

She first began visiting the Smart as a place of respite from a heavy patient load during her 43 years at the University of Chicago Medical Center: stopping by the Smart galleries several times a week allowed her to recharge from the demands of seeing 10 to 20 patients a day. “At times, I felt like the Smart was mine,” says Janis, “And after all these years, I still do.” To mark the significance of the Smart in her life, Janis makes regular annual contributions and has made a bequest of her comprehensive photography collection that continues to grow, inspired by her frequent visits to the Museum.

In 2000, Janis began collecting photography at a gallery show featuring Ralph Eugene Meatyard, an American artist whose dreamlike work crosses genres and means of expression. She was drawn to an image of a young girl and bought it on the spot, launching a creative journey that spans more than 20 years. Today, she owns approximately 60 pieces, ranging from works by renowned Photo League artists like Helen Levitt, Walter Rosenblum, and Robert Frank to photographs by conceptual Chicago-based artist Kenneth Josephson. “My photography collection is my family,” Janis says.

Janis’s approach to collecting has evolved in conjunction with the growth of the Smart Museum, with numerous visits over the years introducing her to new artistic ideas. “The Museum’s exhibitions have become more intriguing over time: unique narratives, questions, and takeaways,” she says. For her, finding the personal in a piece or exhibition is crucial. “Some talk of [photography] as two-dimensional, but if I see a third dimension in a work, one that includes me, it’s right,” Janis says. “It’s that idea of connection. The events in my life, where I’ve been, what I believe. It’s personal. And that’s what I have in my relationship with the Smart Museum.”

Through behind-the-scenes tours, curatorial walkthroughs, and remarkable exhibitions—in particular, Janis appreciated the 2019 Down Time: On the Art of Retreat—she has developed a special bond with the Smart community. This connection led to the donation of Janis’s evolving photo collection. “I’ve connected with photography and other media. I’ve learned new ways to look at art,” she says. “I’m still learning. It’s important that my collection represents more than it is, that the Smart Museum amasses to something beyond singular works or collections. With the concept of community so very important today, I simply had to choose the Smart as a home for my family.”

Janis gives annually to the Smart Museum and urges others to do the same. Opportunities like UChicago’s Giving Day and support from allies like Janis are what enables the Smart to build and sustain a vital community engaged in art. “Community is what you make of it,” Janis adds, “How you nurture it.”

Celebrate the Smart on UChicago’s Giving Day, April 21–22, 2021. Your gift in any amount helps supports exhibitions like Lust, Love and Loss in Renaissance Europe, this summer’s Toward Common Cause, and fall’s Smart to the Core: Media Aesthetics. With a host of dynamic experiences on site and online, the Smart has something for everyone! Please mark your calendar and make a gift to the Smart.

“The Meatyard was my favorite for a long time—it symbolized my profession and photography journey. But now, it depends on the day of the week, my mood, where I’m sitting or what I’m doing.”

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