The Arts Club of Chicago: The Balance of Private Space and Public Engagement

The Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E Ontario St.
Photograph by William Zbaren / Image Courtesy of ACC.

The Arts Club of Chicago, tucked unassumingly on the corner of Ontario and St. Clair in Streeterville, may be one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated exhibition spaces in the city. Despite its predication on serving as a private social club for accomplished artists, architects, curators, and patrons of the art, the now 100-year-old institution admits the public free of charge to its galleries, where everyone from Simon Starling to Sonnenzimmer has exhibited.

The space itself–a striking work of modernism by John Vinci–features two sweeping ground-floor galleries, a Mies Van der Rohe-designed staircase (removed from the former Arts Club building and reinstalled when the club moved to their current location in 1997), and an outdoor sculpture court. The second floor houses members-only spaces, including the recently unveiled Drawing Room designed in cooperation by firms Vinci-Hamp and Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill.

The Mies van der Rohe-designed Staircase inside the Arts Club. Image Courtesy of ACC

Currently on view is an exhibition of works by Ralph Coburn entitled Random Sequence. Coburn, whose career started with the study of architecture at MIT in the 1940’s, is best known for his color-blocked abstractions which draw reference from the urban environment. In 1962, Coburn–who by that time, had working and social relationships with other such forward-thinking artists as Ellsworth Kelly and John Cage–conceived of one of the first “chance operation” installation programs, wherein the placement of the works in the exhibition space would be decided entirely by the owner or curator of the work without advisement by the artist, and may be moved after initial installation by the same party at will. The resultant series of juxtapositions were meant to open the work up to varied aesthetic and conceptual interpretations, blurring the line between curation and content. Though unrealized in the course of the artist’s career, the Arts Club has elected to execute this process with respect to Random Sequence, re-hanging the paintings multiple times throughout exhibition’s run.

In a time when museums pad their attendance numbers by slating exhibitions that pander to the masses (e.g. David Bowie Is at the MCA Chicago; Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present at MoMA) and galleries continue to shamelessly court the dollar rather than the avant-garde, it is imperative that we have independent institutions that still respect the vision of the artist and the intelligence of the gallery-goer. The Arts Club of Chicago, in choosing to execute Coburn’s unrealized vision, has proven that it does, and in the process has reaffirmed its identity as well as its virtue.

Installation view:Ralph Coburn, Random Sequence. Image Courtesy of ACC.

   *   *   *

The Arts Club of Chicago 201 E. Ontario Street, Chicago, IL 60611. Galleries are open to the public 11am to 6pm, Tuesday through Friday, and 11am to 3pm on Saturdays. Ralph Coburn: Random Sequence is on view through April 25.

Bianca Bova
Bianca Bova

Bianca Bova is a Chicago-based curator. She has worked with national and international contemporary arts organizations including Gunder Exhibitions, SiTE:LAB, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and EXPO Chicago.

Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!