One April evening 75 years ago a coterie of Hyde Park intellectuals and art connoisseurs gathered at the University of Chicago’s Quadrangle Club. Bonded by a nostalgia for the cultural havens back east–where most of them were educated–they decided to establish a society “to stimulate love of the beautiful and to enrich the life of the community through the cultivation of the arts.”

The aptly named Renaissance Society’s first decade was uneventful, though its occasional lectures and modest exhibits were welcomed by Hyde Parkers who otherwise had to make an hour-long trek to the Art Institute for cultural replenishment. But the days of unfocused appreciation of the “beautiful” came to an end in 1929, when a transplanted New Yorker took charge and set the society on a contemporary, professional course. Eva Watson Schutze, a noted painter and photographer, had participated in the Photo-Secessionist movement and was a friend of Alfred Stieglitz. “She raised a lot of hackles with her belief in the avant-garde,” says Suzanne Ghez, the society’s current director. “She was perceived as a radical.”

Shortly after taking office, Schutze stated that one of the society’s purposes was “to stimulate study of the art of the present time, the new renaissance.” True to her word, she made use of extensive ties in the art world to mount group shows that introduced to the midwest the works of Brancusi, Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Noguchi, and other modernists. Not only did she offer six or seven exhibits a year, but her commitment was such that each exhibition also served as a model of scholarship, meticulously documented through catalogs and checklists. With the help of board member Thornton Wilder, she started a program to publish books on society exhibitions–the first books devoted to modern art to be published in the U.S. The crowning achievement of her tenure was the Leger show, which bestowed recognition on the French painter years before the east-coast arts arbiters would. The knack for discovering significant artists on the verge of international renown was to become the society’s hallmark. By the time Schutze died in 1936, the Renaissance Society was no longer an obscure arts club in the cultural backwaters; it had a prominent place on the art-world map.

The society’s next assertive leader, according to Joe Scanlan, its unofficial chronicler, was Frances Strain Biesel, who took over in 1941. Biesel and her husband, both painters, were part of the fabled artist colony on 57th Street, and she was generous to a fault in championing area artists. Though less ambitious and astute than Schutze, she continued the policy of pushing progressive aesthetics, of challenging received wisdom. In the next two decades the society highlighted the careers of Kathe Kollwitz, Mies van der Rohe, and Jose Orozco, among others, and sponsored thought-provoking lectures and performances by luminaries such as Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier, and Leonard Bernstein. Its vanguard catholicism was unprecedented in Chicago.

These days the society occupies an airy, light-filled gallery on the top floor of a neo-Gothic building on the U. of C.’s main quadrangle. While still loosely affiliated with its host institution, it’s free to choose potentially controversial materials. “Other than the use of the space, we don’t receive any subsidies from the U. of C. And they’ve been good about not interfering with what we do,” Ghez explains. “Our budget comes from foundation grants and private donations.” The operating budget, shoestring by museum standards, supports a small staff and five exhibits a year. Ghez says she and her colleagues gladly pay the price of their creative independence. Besides, she adds, “we’re planning to set up an endowment during our anniversary, so we can meet escalating costs of mounting substantial shows.”

An aptitude for numbers was reportedly a factor in Ghez’s appointment as the society’s seventh head back in 1974. Though she lacked formal training in art history, she had acquired a passionate respect for the new and the unusual while working as an assistant at the society. As the chief curator, she says, “I’ve learned to trust my own instincts and intuition.” She also enthusiastically acknowledges the advice of a small circle of specialists on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly art historian Anne Rorimer.

The society was entrusted to Ghez at a critical juncture. It had been forced to rethink its direction after the Smart Gallery–a more art-history-oriented university-supported collecting museum–appeared on campus. Ghez opted to return to the role of the “independent experimental laboratory for the search of legitimate meaning in art” that Schutze had envisioned four decades earlier. By most accounts, the “laboratory” has introduced every major avant-garde movement here and abroad since the mid-70s: earth art, performance and video art, media appropriation, neoexpressionism, and feminism, among others. (Ghez does have her share of detractors who fault her “trendiness” and Eurocentrism.)

Ghez, who’s surprisingly unburdened by the jargon of her profession, takes special satisfaction in having given Ed Paschke a mid-career retrospective “ten years before the Art Institute.” And she’s proud to have showcased important works of Robert Smithson, Jeff Wall, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, and Louise Bourgeois when the artists were obscure or out of fashion. “We were the first museum to catalog a Mike Kelley show, in ’88,” she says with delight, “and he’s turning out to be a major find.”

For the opening show of the society’s 75th-anniversary season, she characteristically picked a European who’s been around since the 60s but who’s still a relative unknown outside the Paris-Berlin axis: Swiss conceptual painter Niele Toroni. His aesthetic is hard to categorize, beyond that it obsessively questions established notions of what painting–both the act and the object–is. The Toroni show will be unveiled this Sunday from 5 to 7 PM and will be on view through November 4. Hours are 10 to 4 Tuesday through Friday, 12 to 4 Saturday and Sunday. The Renaissance Society is located on the fourth floor of Cobb Hall, 5811 S. Ellis; admission is free. For further information about the society and its upcoming exhibitions call 702-8670.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.