From left Julie Rodrigues Widholm, Alison Gass, Janine Mileaf, Lisa Graziose Corrin and Solveig Øvstebø at the Arts Club of Chicago, with a partial view of Alexander Calder, Red

Chicago’s power players

Meet five dynamic museum directors and curators who are at the forefront of the city’s vibrant art scene

The Renaissance Society is an odd name for an institution dedicated to contemporary art. Solveig Øvstebø says that the original aim of the society (founded in 1915) was to create ‘a place for the exchange of ideas and discourse within the arts’. So it is the spirit of enquiry that harks back to the Quattrocento, not the art on show. Øvstebø sees the function of ‘the Ren’ as ‘contributing to waves of dissonance within the art world’, which requires the closest possible collaboration with artists. ‘We don’t ask: what have you done? We ask: what do you want to do?’

For Julie Rodrigues Widholm, curation begins with exploration. ‘I travel a great deal,’ she says. ‘I go to fairs and studios. I ask artists: who should I visit?’ The DePaul stages up to nine shows a year, which is a lot of ideas to find. Rodrigues Widholm’s latest show looked at artistic responses to the New Age — the retreat or advance (depending on your viewpoint) into esoteric practices such as astrology and environmentalism.

‘Our founding mission was to bring together art workers and art lovers,’ says Janine Mileaf. Down the years, those ‘art workers’ have included Picasso, who held his first American solo show here, as well as guest speakers such as Igor Stravinsky, Robert Frost and Gertrude Stein. The Arts Club has changed location numerous times over the past 100 years or so, but kept its elevated, progressive ethos — symbolised, perhaps, by the Mies van der Rohe staircase glimpsed in the picture at the top of this story, which was salvaged from one of the club’s earlier homes and installed here on East Ontario Street.

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‘We are a university museum,’ says Alison Gass; but that doesn’t mean the Smart is only for university people. She wants all visitors to feel at home, whether they are faculty professors or art exhibition first-timers. The Smart is free, so Gass can afford to take curatorial risks. In 2017, she staged Jayna Zweiman’s Welcome Blanket, a crowd-sourced piece in which 3,000 blankets were knitted from 3,500,640 yards of yarn, a length equal to Trump’s proposed border wall. After the show, the blankets were distributed to immigrants and refugees.

Lisa Graziose Corrin describes the Block as ‘small but mighty’ — a vitrine for all the scholarship to be found on the Northwestern University campus. She cheerfully co-opts non-art experts if she feels their know-how will add a useful perspective, and she likes to quote Leonardo’s observation: ‘People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them, they went out and happened to things.’

This October, Christie’s celebrates its 40th anniversary in Chicago with a series of special programming, viewings and events taking place at our office and at iconic locales throughout the city