Smart Museum of Art Celebrates 40 Years - Encouraging the Fine Arts and Innovation on Chicago’s South Side



Nearly 40 years ago, the Smart Museum of Art was opened to the public. Founded in honor of the renowned publishers of Esquire and Coronet, David and Alfred Smart, following a major gift to the University of Chicago, the museum opened in Hyde Park on the University's campus. The Smart first began as a repository for the University’s fine arts collection when the institution opened in the 1890’s. The Smart’s mission has always been rooted in education and research. Not just an art historical resource for U of C students, the museum has blossomed into the south side’s center for the fine arts and acts as an educational art hub today for many, from preschool to graduate students, its reach extending from other local universities and colleges to public schools.

Through the years the Smart has played a vital role as a key asset in Chicago’s cultural landscape. The museum’s Dana Feitler Director, Anthony G. Hirschel, and chief curator of 35 years, Richard A. Born, provide perspective on the Smart’s rich history as well as its current collection, exhibitions, and mission. 

When the museum opened in 1974, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Block Museum at Northwestern University and the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago were primarily the only art museums in Chicago.

“[The opening of the Smart] established another program in the city for individuals interested in the fine arts. It was very special because the south side - not just Hyde Park - had no fine art museums associated with it.” Born explains, “It established itself through outreach and educational initiatives, as well as many school programs throughout the south side and west sides of Chicago. We were really the only museum in the area for people to visit.” 

Having a dynamic, diverse faculty and an enthusiastic student body has helped the museum grow and develop as an institution. The University’s cross-disciplinary studies are at the core of the Smart’s research and teaching, not only influencing the nature of exhibitions and traveling shows, but also the museum’s educational programs and outreach. 

“A great deal of the energy that surrounds the kind of programs we do is derived directly from the fact that we are part of this great research university and the intellectual dynamism that reflects these people – it makes us a much more interesting institution,” says Hirschel. 

The museum’s collection and exhibitions are built upon four main pillars: Asian art, European art, modern art and design, and contemporary art. Intermingling works of renowned artists like Mark Rothko, Auguste Rodin, and Francisco de Goya with lesser-known gems, including Arthur Garfield Dove and Norman Lewis, encompasses a regional and international body of art. Other works, such as Childe Hassam’s 1893 On the Lake Front Promenade Columbian World Exposition, pay tribute to Chicago’s history and important world events. Combining the past with the present is a unique asset of the museum’s exhibition strategy, and the regular juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary works illustrates lasting cultural and artistic traditions.  

Sculpture has long been a significant focus at the Smart. The museum’s first large sculptural collection consisted of over 350 works donated by the Starrels family in memory of Joel Starrels, Jr., a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. Born, a graduate student in the Department of Art at the time, assisted in cataloguing the collection that became the core of the museum. The Smart’s inaugural exhibition, which opened to the public in fall of 1974, showcased 164 19th and 20th century sculptures and drawings, including works by Henry Moore, Jean Arp, and Jacques Lipchitz selected from The Joel Starrels, Jr. Memorial Collection.

Now, 40 years later the Smart celebrates its roots in sculpture by transforming the museum’s 8,800 square foot gallery space into an exhibition purely dedicated to sculpture from the museum’s collection titled Carved, Cast, Crumpled: Sculpture All Ways, opening September 27.

“Often in museums, sculpture gets the least amount of physical play because it takes a lot of space. The inaugural gift really set a course of collecting sculpture here [and] the exhibit highlights a trajectory that we set early on and over 40 years,” explains Born. 

Carved, Cast, Crumpled: Sculpture All Ways raises the central question “What makes an object a sculpture?” The answer revolves around five underlying historical themes in sculpture: figuration, extraction, materiality, function, and aura. Unique to the exhibit is Gallery X, an open space that acts as a center for the public’s discussion and thoughts. Also exclusive to the exhibit, labels will not be written by a curator, but by students, interns, and staff members. 

As Born and Hirschel reflect on their fondest memories at the Smart, from collaboration with scholars in China to bringing a variety of people into contact with art, interaction with students and the public are at the heart of their responses. Born remarks, “Working with students - they keep you young!” 

In 2014 the Smart looks to the public as a tool for change and growth. “We really think about where we are going to experiment with different approaches - to encourage people to think about our collection, the museum, and the museum experience in general,” states Hirschel, “We want our visitors to help us shape the way we interpret the collections and present them in the future.” Here’s to the next 40 years at the Smart. 


Image shown at top of page: The Smart’s inaugural exhibition in October 1974. © Smart Museum of Art 


Correction: This article (also printed in the September-December edition of Chicago Gallery News) has been revised to reflect the following: The Smart was not founded by David and Alfred Smart, who both passed away in the early 1950s. Rather, it was founded in their honor following a major gift from the Smart Family Foundation to the University of Chicago. 


Carved, Cast, Crumpled: Sculpture All Ways runs September 27-December 21, 2014

Smart Museum of Art

The University of Chicago

Tel 773-702-0200 • www.smartmuseum.uchicago.edu