Renaissance Society builds upon history of artistic expression, experimentation

The Renaissance Society, the non-collecting museum on the fourth floor of Cobb Hall, has undergone many transformations in its more than century-long existence.

Begun in 1915 at the University of Chicago to “stimulate study of the art of the present time,” the museum became one of the country’s most important contemporary arts institutions, featuring works by Gaugin, Matisse, Picasso and Calder. In the last half-century, it has premiered projects by prominent artists, including future UChicago faculty Jessica Stockholder and William Pope.L.

Today, its reputation for ambitious exhibitions has made it a destination for artists seeking to experiment and have their work seen on a global scale. Among the recent successes are works featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Art Institute of Chicago.

“We give artists a chance to produce new work,” said Solveig Øvstebø, the Renaissance Society’s executive director and chief curator since 2013. “We are so happy to see that the artworks often go on to live their lives in other institutions and museums, where they are encountered by even more audiences.”

B. Ingrid Olson is a Chicago-based artist who benefitted from the chance to experiment. Several pieces from her recent exhibition at the Renaissance Society were purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City after a MOMA curator to see her show at UChicago.

Olson, who first visited the Renaissance Society as an art student while at School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008, said the support and exposure she received were instrumental in developing her recent project.

“I had the option to show work already in existence, but there was encouragement and support, intellectually and financially, to conceive and produce something that I hadn't yet realized,” Olson said. “It would have been really difficult, if not impossible, to proceed with making the new works on my own.”

Olson joins a growing list of artists with works commissioned by the Renaissance Society that have recently gone on to major museums, including Kevin Beasley’s Your Face Is/Is Not Enough (2016), which has gone to the Tate Modern in London; and Mathias Poledna’s film Substance (2014), acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago.

“It is a testament to the bold vision of the artists that these amazing works have gone on to such esteemed collections, and we are proud to have played a part in their genesis,” Øvstebø said. “Our faith in artists and their ideas means that our work plays a unique and vital role in the field of contemporary art and the broader cultural landscape.”

The newest installation, Unthought Environments, curated by Karsten Lund, is an examination of the natural world as seen through the lens of media studies, ecology and philosophy. The new artwork uses video, sculpture and more to explore a variety of subjects, from mining operations collecting natural materials for computers to the state of water in countries around the world.

In addition to cultivating new work from artists, Øvstebø has also focused efforts to fund this focus on production through a campaign called the Next Century Fund, which to date has raised more than $4 million with major gifts provided by the Edlis Neeson Foundation, the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation and the Zell Family Foundation.

The Ren also has been working closely with students to continue to expand its reputation on campus. Fourth-year art history major May Makki said she stumbled upon the Renaissance Society during her second year at UChicago and was thrilled with the discovery.

Makki is a now member of the Ren’s Student Committee, which works to encourage greater interaction between the student body and the Ren. Makki says the group launched a free student membership program, which has gained nearly 200 members in less than a year.

“The Ren is such an incredible resource,” Makki said. “In the past year, the student committee has tried to make more events just for students, which has been successful. We’re making it a space for students with a shared interest to get together.”