PostHeaderIcon A Select Club Within A Club

Union League Club

Union League Club

Last week, I wrote in the Chicago Tribune, Union League’s art collection turns 125,” about the important, but relatively little-known, collection of mostly American Art at Chicago’s Union League Club. The collection, which has nearly 800 works including a priceless Monet painting, was begun in 1886, making this year its 125th anniversary.

Due to a lack of space, I had to shoehorn the history of a relatively recent club honor into two short paragraphs. I’d like, in this post, to make amends and tell the story of the club’s Distinguished Artist Program, an initiative that honors esteemed, contemporary Chicago artists.

In 1992, Phil Wicklander was staying at the Lotos Club on a visit to New York. Wicklander, then a member of the Union League art committee and a collector himself, found a program in his room signed by many noted artists. Next morning, as he ate in the club’s dining room, he marveled at the display of artworks on the club walls by the artists on his room’s program.

He brought the idea back to Chicago, thinking such a program would benefit the club’s collection which was sorely lacking art by contemporary Chicago artists. He spent several years cajoling his more conservative art committee colleagues and, in 1997, the club adopted what has come to be known as the Distinguished Artist Program.

Ed Paschke

Ed Paschke

Wicklander assured the program’s success by choosing noted sculptor Richard Hunt and mixed-media artist, Ed Paschke as the first two artists selected in 1998. The artists receive a free club membership and, in return, each donates one of their works to the collection.

The next election (chosen by current artists plus members of the club’s art committee) named Don Baum, an artist/curator associated with Chicago’s “Hairy Who” movement of the 1960s and painter Vera Klement.   Two new, equally acclaimed, artists are normally selected to join this special club biennially.  Fourteen Chicago artists have been elected since its founding.

Their works are displayed throughout the clubhouse with a concentrated selection in the 5th Floor parlor.  Several of the artists express strong satisfaction being part of an important collection in one of the city’s premier civic institutions.

John David Mooney thinks their inclusion in the club is in line with his own artistic goals. “My goal has been to take art where it’s appreciated—the public places—and not necessarily museums. Painter Vera Klement finds it refreshing to have her work in such a setting. “ What I like is that the members’ response is a direct, unfiltered response. I’ve had very good reactions based on people who are not art specialists who read Artforum or speak of what’s cutting edge.”

William Conger

William Conger

Painter William Conger sees having their work in the collection as “connecting the work of artists with the ambitious work ethic of the members in commercial and industrial enterprise. I admire that ‘let’s get it done’ Chicago attitude.”

Wicklander is proud of how his idea has worked out. What he finds especially gratifying is that, “the Art Institute and MCA may have their (Distinguished Artists) work but where is it but in the basement? The Union League now has more art by these distinguished Chicago artists than any place in the world.”

THE 14

1998—Richard Hunt and Ed Paschke

2001—Don Baum and Vera Klement

2003—Ruth Duckworth and Kerry James Marshall

2004—Michiko Itatani and John David Mooney

2006—Barbara Crane

2008—Robert Lostutter, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle and James Valerio

2010—Dawoud Bey and William Conger

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