Union League Club American Art Collection

MK Meador

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a three part series featuring the impressive holdings of the Union League Club Chicago. Please check back later this summer  for more about the Union League Club’s American Art Collection

For anyone reading this who thinks that Clubs are an outmoded form of socialization, I have news for you. Having been well aware of the world-class art collections in Chicago since my first visit to the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art many years ago, I was surprised to see mention of an art collection in the confines of the Union League Club of Chicago. The clubhouse is located in the Loop and merely a block away from the Chicago Stock Exchange. Walking past on Jackson Street, one would never pause to think that this structure houses one of the most comprehensive private collections of American Art.

100 Years of Collecting

What began in 1886, is now going stronger than ever. The Union League Club of Chicago began collecting art and principally American art before the turn of the 20th century. In its entirety, the collection today has over 800 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs and decorative art. While the focus of the collection is American Art, there are a few highly notable exceptions. Most famous among the international artistic representation is the Union League’s very own Monet. The painting Pommiers en fleurs was purchased in 1895 from a local private collector Judge John Barton Payne. Beyond this, the collection’s focus was not towards the blockbuster works of the day. The premise of the collection is well stated in Neil Harris’ essay on the collection “Art and the American Club: Chicago’s Union League Club as Patron”. The essay explains:

“Like most other American collecting institutions of the day, the Union League Club considered Old Masters unaffordable and had little expectation of acquiring them. Instead, the acquisitions would come almost entirely from contemporary artists… Such a commitment to the native school as opposed to European artists differentiated the ULC from many other institutions.”

By 1890, a percentage of the membership dues was set aside as an acquisition fund for future works of art. This ensured that the club would collect and continue to collect the up and coming artworks of every decade.

The only thing more remarkable about the Union League’s art collection is the care with which they maintain and upkeep the myriad of works. The Chicago Union League is almost assuredly the only private club which has a full time curator. Elizabeth Whiting was appointed to the position of curator in 2009. The previous curator, Marianne Richter had fulfilled a long and successful tenure. Whiting’s position is rare even for the art world and, even perhaps more rare, would be the club’s funding for a part-time conservator. As this article is published, the conservator is currently working on restoring Thomas Buchanan Reed’s portrait of Sheridan’s Ride 1871. The curator/ conservator team is typical for museums and other institutions, but for a private club, this show a remarkable care and stewardship for the works in the collection.

Between May of 2009 and May 2010 the club brought in five new works, Whiting explains, “to tell the story of Chicago art in depth”. Works such as the Manierre Dawson painting, created in 1913 and acquired in 2007, were sought after by the club, “to fill in the historical gaps” as Whiting explains. The club’s efforts to rally and support current and local artists is exhibited in the club’s third floor gallery. For the summer of 2010, this gallery showcases the work from the 3 winners of the Civic & Arts Foundation Visual Art Competition.

At this point, readers may lament that a private club is home to such an incredibly intriguing and diverse art collection. While the fact remains that the club is largely only accessible to members only, there is good news. Instead of sequestering their collection from the public, they open their doors on the first Friday of every month and, with the requisite RSVP, anyone can visit and tour the Club’s many floors each chocked full of art.

Given the rich history of the Union League Club – each piece, each work has a history and a story. In the upcoming posts about the ULC art collection – I will tell a few of the stories behind the works as well as introduce the club’s Distinguished Artist Program.

For more information on the history of the club and American Art collection, please visit the Union League Club’s website.