Students celebrate the dedication of the Film Center’s new Columbus Drive location, October 6, 1976. Courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center

In an article for the Chicago Tribune published on November 26, 1972, film critic Gene Siskel (after whom, ironically, the institution would later be named) announced the pending commencement of a new film center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, set to open on January 3 of the coming year. 

“This article,” he wrote, “is dedicated to the hundreds of persons who have stopped me in movie theaters, dinner parties, baseball games, and lecture halls and complained that Chicago is a cinematic hick town, that they never can find any good art films.”

He continued: “Your problems are over.”

Just four months earlier, in that newspaper’s same pages, an abridged version of a master’s thesis by Neill Rosenfeld declared in its headline, “Art houses die—Chicago’s not even second anymore.” Rosenfeld went on to lament recent closures of local art house theaters—with charming names like the Termite Theater, the Three Penny, and the Little Stabs of Happiness Cinematheque—or their conversion to theaters specializing in “skin flicks,” an alleged reasoning behind his pronouncement of Chicago as a “hick town.”

The proprietor of the Clark Theater, which had been bought and turned into one of those dens of iniquity, is quoted in the article as saying, “Sex and violence are the only things people will go downtown for. I don’t think there will ever be another art house in the Loop.”

Courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center

As the Film Center celebrates its 50th anniversary, it’s clear that this assertion has been proven wrong just as many years over. Accompanying Siskel’s November article was a large photograph of Camille Cook, the woman who founded what was then called, very straightforwardly, the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute. 

Before that Cook was known for her interest in experimental and avant-garde cinema. A member of the Society of Typographic Arts (STA), the city’s oldest professional design association, she founded the STA’s Magic Lantern Society, screening films at such locations as the Tribune Tower and the basement of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Seeking to expand her endeavor, Cook looked to the venerated Pacific Film Archive (PFA) at the University of California at Berkeley. Sheldon Renan, the PFA’s founding director, encouraged her to pursue a grant through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); he also advised that she’d need to find an institutional sponsor in order to qualify. This was during a time when the NEA was distributing such grants so as to encourage the creation of various regional film centers across the country versus just on the coasts.

Cook approached the Art Institute of Chicago, which summarily rejected her proposal. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), however, did not, and thus, the Film Center came to be, with an even more expansive mission toward the beginning (like PFA, Cook had hoped to amass an archive as well as establish an exhibition venue). Barbara Scharres, who retired from her position as the Film Center’s director of programming in winter of 2020, after having been there for 45 years (more than one person with whom I spoke calls her the soul of the Film Center), lauded Cook’s tenacity. 

“She was not going to take ‘no’ from anybody,” she says. “At that time women didn’t go up against the authority of the Art Institute of Chicago.” Things have a way of working out—the Film Center’s first location was in the Art Institute of Chicago’s regal Fullerton Hall auditorium. 

Esteemed critic and scholar (and one-time Reader film writer) B. Ruby Rich took tickets on opening night; she became the first full-time staff member after the Film Center received a grant from the Illinois Arts Council allowing for her hire. Upon arriving in Chicago from her native New England, she had also had the idea of starting a film society. Roger Gilmore, then dean of the School of the Art Institute, recommended she seek out Cook.

Rich would eventually become the Film Center’s associate director under Cook, and the two were co-programmers. Writing about the experience in her book Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement, Rich summarized her time there succinctly: “I was able to have fun and premiere important films.” Though she was only there for five years, Rich helped organize numerous memorable screenings and events, including two film festivals sponsored by the Tribune.

The first (and the Film Center’s first festival altogether) was Films by Women, held in September 1974. Siskel had pitched it to Rich and the Film Center, noting in the Tribune that “the idea for the festival began [the year prior] with two articles I wrote while attending a similar program in Washington.” The festival included 25 features, more than 30 short films, and several workshops. Standout titles include Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform, Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, Ida Lupino’s Outrage, and a retrospective of films by Dorothy Arzner, among many others.

“I would be stopped in the street for years by women whose lives had been changed by whatever they saw there or whoever they met there,” says Rich. 

Politics were then becoming more important to Rich, which, coinciding with the nation’s bicentennial, led her to program a festival of revolutionary films from all over the world. The American selections ranged from Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe to King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread; international titles included Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World and Shinsuke Ogawa’s Narita: The Peasants of the Second Fortress. This is but a smattering of the more than 70 films included in the event. 

Like Cook, Rich also had an interest in experimental and avant-garde films, and she helped bring to the Film Center such figures as Chantal Akerman (who stayed at her home for a week), George Kuchar, and Kenneth Anger. “In the beginning we were both very taken with the idea of showing films to the Chicago public,” Rich says of her working relationship with Cook. “Of making something happen in Chicago. Of making a mark for the Film Center. Of stirring things up.” 

In the years after Rich’s departure came two new associate directors: first Scott Levine, then Richard Peña. Though Levine’s tenure was short-lived, “[those] two and a half years are pretty rich in remembrance.” 

“The thing that I’m most proud of when I was there is that I programmed a film festival called The Actress on Film,” Levine says. This took place in 1979 and was also sponsored by the Tribune. One of the festival guests was screen legend Sylvia Sidney. As Levine recounts, she was dismayed at being put up in the Blackstone Hotel, which had fallen from its former glory. 

“I was 25 years old at the time, and I got this phone call, and it was Sylvia Sidney,” he says. “And she was not happy. This was before she came . . . she says to me, ‘You wouldn’t ask Henry Fonda or Bette Davis to stay at the Blackstone.’ And my response to her was, ‘I would. It might have been a mistake for them as well as you, but I certainly would ask them to stay at the Blackstone.’”

Scharres, who became a full-time employee of the Film Center in 1975 thanks to a Community and Economic Development Association grant, remembers it differently. In her recollection, it was Sidney who’d wanted to stay at the Blackstone, even though it had become run-down since she stayed there as a traveling stage actress. Regardless, these discrepancies in memory shape another kind of history, which endures in the hearts and minds of the people who lived it but who, like all humans, are subject to the fallibility of reminiscence. Less concrete than chronology, of course, but ever more impactful. 

In 1976 the Film Center moved locations again, this time to the 280 Building of the School of the Art Institute, on Columbus Drive at Jackson Boulevard, and, as a result of its gaining another screen, further expanded its programming. Peña, who would go on to be program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and artistic chief of the New York Festival, became assistant director in 1980 and director some years later. Cook (who passed away in 2020) left in 1981. 

Film Center interior, 1976. Courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center

There were other festivals, too, some of which started at the Film Center and others which found their home within its walls. Among them are the Hong Kong Film Festival (per the Film Center, one of the first in North America to screen John Woo’s films); the Annual Festival of Films from Iran (started in 1989 by Alissa Simon and continued by Scharres, with advisement from filmmaker and professor Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa); the Black Harvest Film Festival (which began in 1994 as a continuation of Floyd Webb’s Blacklight Film Festival—Sergio Mims is its cofounder and longtime coprogrammer); the Asian American Showcase (a collaboration with the Foundation for Asian American Independent Media that originated in 1996); the Chicago Palestine Film Festival; and the European Film Festival (later the European Union Film Festival), which this year will celebrate its 25th edition in early March. 

Scharres became the Film Center’s director in 1988, when Peña departed for New York. She had been its first-ever executive director, until the role was split up with Scharres retaining the director of programming title. Randy Adamsick then became executive director in 2000 and stayed for a little over a year. He was followed by Jean de St. Aubin, who’s held the role since. Coming from the Chicago Park District, de St. Aubin helped revive the theater during a particularly low point in the early aughts. De St. Aubin understands that at the heart of an organization like the Film Center isn’t only its staff, but also its audience. “[The audience] is key. They’re the most important.”

She expands on the unique dilemma of a film organization trying to attract wider audiences while staying true to its mission. “I think we’ve always had a delicate balance between programming films that introduce people to new genres [and] film communities and then showing things that have name recognition, whether it’s a director or a star.”

The current director of programming, Rebecca Fons, likewise recognizes this dilemma and feels the Film Center is meeting it head-on. “I think we’re successfully introducing new ideas and new concepts while also holding on to who we’ve been for 50 years,” Fons says, referring in part to initiatives that have begun emerging in the arts sphere, dedicated to inclusion and visibility for marginalized groups heretofore left out of the conversation. 

“I’m really hopeful we can put some action to those words with some conversations,” she says. “Because I think . . . even if you present a film that counterbalances that history, or any film history, or is an examination of that history, to do so without a robust conversation is tricky.”

Fons began during the pandemic, several months into the venue’s temporary closure and after a round of layoffs at the Art Institute decimated the Film Center’s already lean staff. For various reasons the Film Center has had to pause on some of their more robust, typically in-person offerings, such as the yearly lecture series, which involved having a film academic or historian teach a several-week course both for SAIC students and the general public, who could stay for the lecture after the film screenings. 

Former associate director of programming Marty Rubin, whose tenure began in 2000 and who was one of those laid off in the summer of 2020, is most proud of his work on the lecture series. 

“I thought that was one of the best things that the Film Center did,” he says. “I think it provided a unique opportunity for film academics to interact with the general public in a way that I thought was mutually enriching.” Rubin specifically recalls a recent series on Orson Welles taught by former Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, during which Rosenbaum delivered, seemingly off the cuff, illuminating histories and anecdotes about Welles after screenings of films such as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and others.

In 2000, the Film Center was renamed the Gene Siskel Film Center, after the late Tribune film critic who had passed away in 1999. This was a development some found questionable, considering the lack of interest Siskel had, especially later in his career, toward less mainstream fare. The next year, in 2001, the organization moved to its current location on 164 North State Street, across the street from the Chicago Theatre—whose iconic marquee can be seen through the lobby windows, along with the dance students at the Joffrey Ballet, a fitting location for one of downtown’s pivotal cultural establishments. 

Gene Siskel Film Center interior. Courtesy Lori Hile

In keeping with Cook’s initial mission of showcasing experimental and avant-garde films, the Film Center began hosting the Conversations at the Edge screening series in 2001, created in partnership with Video Data Bank and the SAIC Department of Film, Video, New Media, and Animation. Its current head, Amy Beste, director of public programming for the department of Film, Video and New Media at the School of the Art Institute, sees the series as a meeting point between the Film Center’s more traditional cinema offerings and other realms of moving image art. 

“In some ways I felt like Conversations at the Edge exists as this kind of doorway between the . . . repertory aspect of the Gene Siskel Film Center and these other versions of media art or cinema art, that could lead you to other places,” she says. “It was also a way to kind of bring them together so that people could really have a more complicated understanding of media culture or media arts in general. And then think about them in relation to the history of cinema with a capital C. Especially because it’s happening in this beautiful cinematic venue.”

The Film Center, with its range of repertory and contemporary programming, continues to be among the best places in the city to engage with cinema history and to revel in its expanded modes. To celebrate the theater’s golden anniversary, Fons has programmed the 50/50 series, in which a film from each year of the theater’s history will screen every Monday night in 2022.

Gene Siskel Film Center 50/50 Series
164 North State Street. Mondays, 6 PM, January 3-December 19, 2022. Single ticket: $12. Series pass: $500 general public, $250 Film Center members.

Titles so far have included Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), and John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Upcoming films include Akerman’s landmark Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975); Siskel’s all-time favorite, Saturday Night Fever (1977); Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982); and Varda’s Vagabond (1985). 

More information about these can be found in the Film Center’s newly republished Gazette, a longtime offering of the Film Center with its own rich history; a note from de St. Aubin in the issue recognizes the publication’s history and expands on a new, more “responsive” approach to programming going forward. 

In a world whose problems are far from over, this article is dedicated to the tens of thousands of people who know that there is a place in the Loop where good art films can be found, where a respite from reality can lead to a greater understanding of it. It’s been here for 50 years and, hopefully, 50 more to come.