From ‘Almost Accidental’ to Smart: A History of Campus Arts Facilities

by Michael O'Malley

last edited on Wed. October 1 2014

Some early musings on the need for formal art facilities at the University of Chicago came alongside the “casual and almost accidental” creation of a Department of the History of Art, which happened when the University renamed the Department of Archeology in 1902.[1]

The only two members of the department were Frank B. Tarbell, scholar of Greek art and archeology, and George Zug, best known for describing Matisse and Van Gogh as men who “had never learned to paint.”[2]

Facilities for fine arts remained meager throughout the early phases of the University’s history. Martin A. Ryerson, chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1892–1922, injected a strong dose of hesitation into any discussion of an art building since he was also a founding board member at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of its most influential donors. Mindful of protecting all of his investments, Ryerson dampened any desires for a formal art museum or substantial art-education facilities at the University of Chicago; this was the Art Institute’s territory.

In 1924, University President Ernest D. Burton, who was also largely responsible for the creation of the Renaissance Society in 1915, gave the first official suggestion that an art building be constructed. He called for “an Art building for exhibition of a few choice paintings and sculptures, especially of loan collections, and also containing a hall, a work of art in itself, and specially adapted to the rendering of music of the highest class.”[3] He was careful in his wording to avoid any conflicting missions between a new art building and the Art Institute. Funding was secured for the building’s construction, but the Stock Market Crash of 1929 forced donors to withdraw their bequests. The building was never built.

Fast-forward several decades, and by 1963, the need for new arts facilities on campus had become clear, even dire. Works of art and ancient artifacts were scattered throughout departmental buildings, the music department was “housed in a reverberating sound-box,” and the Midway Studios had fallen into disrepair.[4]

There was little agreement about where new facilities should be located and exactly what they should encompass. Ed Maser, Chairman of the Art Department, proposed a plan for an art center that incorporated the University’s art research, teaching and studio efforts, along with the Renaissance Society, and--diverging from the Ryerson rule--a University art museum.

Maser’s advocacy for arts facilities coincided with the start of a major University fundraising campaign. A new arts facility was included in solicitations to donors, and on October 26, 1967 the University made a public announcement in acceptance of a gift of $1 million from the Smart Family Foundation for a fine arts gallery, to be named in memory of David and Alfred Smart, founders of Esquire, Inc. and publishers of Esquire Magazine.

Compiled from John W. Boyer’s paper, ‘A Noble and Symmetrical Conception of Life’: The Arts at Chicago on the Edge of a New Century, which is Volume XIX of the College’s Occasional Papers on Higher Education series.

1. Boyer, 24.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 27.
4. Ibid., 109.