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The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

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The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

195 pages
51 minutes
Mar 13, 2017


In 2016, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) reached its 150th year. What sustains an institution is sometimes extraordinary, sometimes mundane, and often simply a matter of the sheer will of those involved. An unparalleled museum school, SAIC embodies something greater than the individuals who have passed through it, and yet it has also depended upon the unique and special nature of its protagonists--its founders who survived the Great Chicago Fire and rebuilt the school, a president who cast the hands and face of Abraham Lincoln, an alumna who was a celebrated illustrator and an activist in the women's suffrage movement, the creators of monumental sculptures throughout the country, and numerous scholars of art history and technique--to challenge and shape its form. The school's history is punctuated by marvelous moments of heightened public discourse in art making and scholarship. This book represents a glimpse into the lives of generations of students, staff, and faculty as full participants in an astounding learning environment.
Mar 13, 2017

À propos de l'auteur

Thomas C. Buechele, artist, alumnus, eternal student of SAIC, and member of the community for over 30 years, currently serves as the vice president for campus operations. Nicholas C. Lowe, an interdisciplinary artist, teacher, project manager, and curator, is an associate professor in the Department of Arts, Administration, and Policy.

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The School of the Art Institute of Chicago - Thomas C. Buechele



In 1866, Chicago was a city in process. Occupying just over 16 square miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline is a narrow strip around two miles deep running from east to west, barely touching the prairie. The city was either perched or floating upon a land that is described by James Parton as no longer a quagmire. Parton, in his article Chicago for the March 1867 Atlantic Monthly, goes on to outline how the city, its institutions, and its people have risen to rival any other American city at that time.

All boosterism aside, the indicators of such stability and the ongoing ascendancy of the city make for an impressive litany of facts, figures, and descriptions—not least to apprehend the atmosphere of the time that gave birth to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), when the great passions and terrible losses of the Civil War were still being so very keenly felt. The tastes of people in Chicago were as equally for the virtuosity of the violinist and the painter as they were for the daily movement of stock and goods. All speaks to a city seeking to draw its inspirations as much from the arts and culture as from commerce and industry.

The origin of SAIC can be traced back to November 1866, when 35 local artists met at Reynold’s Block on Dearborn and Madison Streets and the Chicago Academy of Design took form. Academy members intended to institute a free school of life and antique drawing and to run a gallery that would sponsor literary, musical, and dramatic events. On May 3, 1867, the academy held its first event in Crosby’s Opera House. Later that year, under a revised constitution, Leonard Wells Volk was appointed to act as president, and a curriculum modeled in the French academic manner was instituted early in 1868. In 1870, the academy moved into its own building for the first time, only to be destroyed in 1871 by the Great Chicago Fire. Following this obvious setback, the academy again struggled to find a home, though by 1874, it was fully up and running once again, in rented rooms on the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Van Buren Street.

Then, following another move in 1877, further financial support was called for and received in 1878 through the addition of benefactors in the form of a board of trustees. In 1879, the artists and the benefactors were at odds over the management of the academy and a further reorganization took place. Finally, a new institution was born: the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. This new entity assumed the same facilities with the same students, faculty, and staff. In fact, as a report in the Chicago Tribune on June 29, 1879, points out, not a day was missed and classes continued uninterrupted into the summer. In 1882, the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts changed its name to the Art Institute of Chicago, and then by extension, the school was soon to be formally known by the name it has used since: the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The impetus for this book began as a way to better understand these early years of the institution, from its growth and movement from rented rooms to elegantly appointed studios and galleries to its purpose-built civic landmark. In 1894, the new building was completed east of Michigan Avenue, almost centered in the city and facing the edifices of the unstoppable metropolis. The school and museum truly took its place as an institution of unparalleled significance in the city’s cultural birth.

Our initial forays into the archive were undertaken with a sense of curiosity and with the pure pleasure of discovering new information. The curiosity grew into a project, and the project has become this book. By no means an attempt to be definitive, this work is an initial entry for us into a much larger story. This book is an overview of the history of the school, from the point of view of its locations, its buildings, and its significant moments. In the process of selecting the images herein, we quickly began to realize that no other book has told our story in quite this way. Concentrating upon the pictorial provided new insights and information, bringing clarity to the narrative previously developed by former dean Roger Gilmore in his 1982 book Over a Century.

We have divided the book into eight chapters, with the first seven covering the 15 decades since 1866, broken out through phases of development tied to the key moments of the school.

The first decades lead up to the appointment of William French, a civil engineer, artist, lecturer, and historian renowned by that time as skilled and perceptive. French built on the foundational work that Volk had begun. It could be argued that this period in the life of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was its renaissance and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 coincided with its coming of age.

The periods up to and following World War I and then the Great Depression clearly carry very different characteristics. The institutional transitions at stake in the interwar years took SAIC from being a beaux-arts academy in the French tradition to an American contemporary arts institution of international significance. Following World War

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