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Lesley Erin Martin

The Decline of the Arts Club

          The Arts Club of Chicago is an unusual cultural organization in that it exists neither for the public, nor for profit. It occupies a realm between civic museums and commercial galleries. Historically, it is credited with support of the avant-garde, but with today’s acceptance of contemporary art, the Club’s placement on the fringes projects little more than a veiled exclusivity.   

          The trend in museum operations, in general, has been towards a greater focus on the needs and desires of the public. One of the factors influencing this shift is an attempt to gain and justify the financial support these institutions can receive from the government. This climate is the initial validation for my argument that the Arts Club has regressed when it comes to their supposed efforts to serve the public good.

          The Club originally held exhibition space within a public museum, and their articles of incorporation claim a desire “to expand the artistic horizons of a public interested in arts,” yet they do little to advertise their presence, and the space itself is exclusive and intimidating. Most significantly, the organization was recently involved in a legal dispute over a property tax exemption after the Illinois Department of Revenue contended that they did not provide the degree of charitableness necessary to warrant it. Though the Club won its appeal regarding the decision, they do not allow the same level of public access as claimed in the court proceedings. While their temporary exhibitions are open to all, the majority of the Club is its permanent collection that is displayed on a different floor or behind closed doors. In my attempt to view these works (as mandated in the legal proceedings), I was turned away.

          The Club maintains a tenuous and problematic relationship between what is public and what is private; a situation that is all the more unfortunate in light of their formerly progressive practices and significant history. My aim is to illuminate the background of this obscure but valuable entity, and to argue that the Club must become more welcoming, accessible, and informative if it truly wishes to contribute to public service.


           Lesley Martin earned an interdisciplinary BA in the Humanities at the University of Chicago in 2003. During her time there she was a Preservation and Exhibitions assistant at the Special Collections Research Center and gave tours at the Robie House. While attending SAIC, Lesley was an assistant at Gallery 2, 1926, and the Roger Brown Study Collection.


Thesis Advisor: James Elkins, Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Visual and Critical Studies

Thesis Reader: Charles Stuckey, Adjunct Associate Professo;, Art History, Theory, and Criticism

Second Reader: Rachel Weiss, Associate Professor and Chair, Arts Administration; Exhibition Studies



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