Appreciating art at the Smart


For almost 25 years, the U of C has been home to the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, a teaching and research resource with an ever-widening public audience. The museum’s director, Kimerly Rorschach, joined the University in 1994, after serving as the coordinating curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. An expert in British art, she earned her Ph.D. in art history from Yale in 1985. She was recently named the Smart Museum’s Dana Feitler director, a position established by Joan Feitler, AM'55, and Robert Feitler, Xí50, in memory of their daughter.
The Magazine asked Rorschach, who holds an appointment in art history and teaches in the Law School, about the place of art and the Smart in campus life-past, present, and future.

As a university art museum, what role does the Smart play, both on campus and in the community?
Experiencing works of art in the original is part of a liberal education, and we need to make that experience available to as many students as possible. A lot of people aren’t interested in art, or didn’t come here to study art-but we’re the ones who can best engage them to discover why this is so important and how much it can enrich their lives. Of course, when professors need to use original examples of certain kinds of materials, classes are taught here. That’s the core mission; that’s the starting point.
But the more public side is also important. We do special exhibitions of materials that could not otherwise be seen in Chicago. Also, we’re here, in this neighborhood, in this part of Chicago, which has no other general art museums. We do a lot of educational outreach to Chicago public schools, particularly on the South Side. We rely on a core group of graduate and College students to facilitate many of these programs.
People sometimes say to me, "We have the Art Institute-why do we need a museum at the University of Chicago?" To me, the answer is obvious. We’re about a completely different way of looking at art. We’re about more focused exhibitions, often presented at a higher level of discourse; having the ability-the luxury, indeed-to focus on artists who aren’t household names.

How does the Smart define itself among the other art institutions on campus?
We have the waterfront divided among us, and we don’t overlap. The Oriental Institute is Near Eastern archaeology, and they have one of the great collections. We don’t have anything in that field.
The Renaissance Society shows exclusively cutting-edge contemporary art. There’s a very particular vision there, a very exciting vision. The Smart hasn’t traditionally shown contemporary art, but since I’ve been here, I’ve come to the opinion that we need to engage with contemporary art to understand art history and how artists think. So we have been doing, and will continue to do, one contemporary show a year.
I would throw Robie House into the mix, too, especially now that it’s becoming more public. We want to encourage people after they tour it to come here and see the Robie House dining-room table and chairs on display.

What does the Smart's collection include?
When the museum was founded, collections that had been formed earlier on campus came to the museum, like the classical collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, which professors began in the 1890s for teaching purposes. An important collection of modern sculpture and drawings, the Sterols collection, came early on. We were also able to get a collection of Renaissance and baroque paintings and sculpture from the Kress Foundation. In those early years, we had 2,000 objects. We now have about 7,500 objects.
We try to build on existing strengths, and we’re very conscious of teaching strengths in the art history department. In photography, for example, where we have two very important scholars, we have a small collection-about 400 prints, built mostly by gift-with some very important items in it, but not comprehensive. We now have some funds available that we’re going to be able to devote to purchasing photography on the advice of these scholars.
East Asian studies has traditionally been a teaching strength at the University, and some objects have been given to us by professors. [The late] Herrlee Creel [[PhB'26, AM'27, DB'28, PhD'29] gave us a very important group of bronzes and some paintings. Harrie Vanderstappen [[AM'51, PhD'55] has made gifts and advised us on purchases. Students of his who’ve gone on to become collectors and curators have also given materials to build the collection.

How do you decide what exhibits to present?
We have a set space to display works from our permanent collection. With 7,500 objects, they can’t all be on view. Almost 5,000 are works on paper-prints, drawings, photographs-which cannot be displayed on a permanent basis for conservation reasons. We usually have 200 to 300 objects on view at any one time. We rotate the collection, especially the areas where we have more depth: modern and contemporary.
We always have a special exhibition. Some are organized by someone else and come to us. Others are organized by us, include some things from our collections, and then travel on to other museums. We do five or six large one-time exhibitions like that a year, and then four to six smaller ones.
If faculty members are going to get involved-if it relates to their research, if they want to write the catalog or help with the organization-that's of great interest to us. The show of contemporary Chinese art that we’re doing in 1999, with Wu Hung as the curator, is going to be fabulous. It’s going to be groundbreaking; it’s going to be news; it’s going to get national and international attention. People are going to come from all over to see that.

What does the future hold for the Smart?
We’re in the process of planning an extensive renovation of the museum, which will include a pretty radical rethinking of what we display. We now have a chronological survey-the whole history of art told through our collection. We’ve decided to try something different, given that art history isn’t really taught that way these days. If we can raise the funds to do it, it will happen in 1999, just after the Chinese show, because we’ll have to close the museum for several months.
We are going to provide a bigger space for our special temporary exhibitions, because we’re constrained in what we can do and because we know those exhibitions really draw visitors. We’re going to devote more space to our modern and contemporary pieces, because those collections are growing the most.
We’ll devote a bit less space to our ancient and old master material, but we’ll rotate it more frequently. The displays will be thematic rather than chronological, and they’ll be up for a year or so. For the most part, they’ll be conceived with the input of faculty and students. Ingrid Rowland is teaching a class on antiquity in the Renaissance, and it’s going to be the first new display that goes up. Our East Asian collection will have a tiny bit more space, but it too will rotate more frequently and be done more thematically.
You can see a big chronological survey of art through the ages down the street at the Art Institute. What can we offer that’s different and that really takes ad-
vantage of the intellectual resources that we can bring to bear? That’s what we’re trying to do.

[Oriental Institute] [Art at the Smart] [David Schramm]