No lions guard the entrance like at the Art Institute of Chicago. No block-wide steps outside lead up to the main exhibit level like they do at the Museum of Contemporary Art. There is nothing about the outside of the building at 65 W. Jackson Blvd. in Chicago's financial district that indicates a museum quality collection inside.
However, the building houses works by Claude Monet, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies Low, Albert Bloch and Roger Brown. The company they keep include George Inness, George Bellows, Ivan Albright, Jim Nutt, Kerry James Marshall, Ed Paschke and other noted artists.
The address is that of the Union League Club of Chicago, a private club formed in 12 cities to back the Union during the Civil War. Still an advocate for country and community with two remaining clubs: The Union League Club of Philadelphia and New York, the Chicago branch has developed a remarkable art collection during the past 126 years.
It has more than 800 works, primarily by American artists, and more recently, by artists who have had some connection to Chicago or the Midwest. The works span the art spectrum from traditional to modern and from painting to photography and ceramics.
Art museum curators across the world know of the private collection. Pieces such as the Monet, a MacMonnies and a William Henry Howe, have been loaned for museum exhibitions.
The good news is that the collection has been open to public view since art tours were approved in 2005. However, reservations are required. Formerly held the first Friday of each month, tours were recently changed to first Monday to provide more public access to rooms that were frequently in use on Fridays.
The somewhat problematic news is that reservations should be made well in advance because tours are limited in size and conducted just once a month.
“Word of the collection exploded two years ago with news about our 125th anniversary celebration. The tour sold out 8 months in advance,” said Art Committee Chairperson Marsha Goldstein. So put visit the art collection on the 2013 New Year's resolution list.
When you see Monet’s “Apple Trees in Blossom,” 1872, you will likely hear the painting was exhibited with other Monet work at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1895 and was sold to the Union Club for $500 that year even though it was valued at the time at about $1,500.
Monet’s French Impressionistic style was not yet in vogue but the club’s Art Committee members: Art Institute of Chicago President W.M.R French, collector and civic leader Martin Ryerson and collector Judge John Barton Payne purchased the piece.
When passing Ross Sterling Turner’s “Cologne Cathedral, 1884, you learn that when Union League Club member Jim Thatcher donated the painting in 1886 he wrote, “I trust this gift may soon find company.”
Keeping the Turner company, although on a different floor, are the more recent acquisitions and works by the club’s Distinguished Artists honorees such as photographers Dawoud Bey and Barbara Cain, ceramicist Ruth Duckworth, sculptor Richard Hunt and abstract painter William Conger.
The list can go on but best is to call curator Elizabeth K. Whiting at 312-435-5942 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. for a reservation and see for yourself. For more information visit Union League Club Tours or call 312-427-7800. The Union League Club of Chicago is at 65 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL 60604.