How Jewish Artists Helped Reinvent Chicago

After The Great Fire, a People and City Remade Themselves

In Sickness and in Health: Leon Garland’s 1932 painting ‘Wedding in the Cemetery’ is based on an old legend that if orphans marry in a cemetery during a cholera epidemic, their dead parents will intercede to stop the scourge.
Courtesy Spertus Museum
In Sickness and in Health: Leon Garland’s 1932 painting ‘Wedding in the Cemetery’ is based on an old legend that if orphans marry in a cemetery during a cholera epidemic, their dead parents will intercede to stop the scourge.

By Laura Hodes

Published November 23, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
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In Chicago, The Spertus Museum has just opened “Jewish Modernists in Chicago,” the seventh chapter in its eight-part series, “Uncovered & Rediscovered: Stories of Jewish Chicago.” This new exhibit focuses on the artistic influence of a group of Jewish artists active in Chicago in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.

The entire series is part of the reinvention of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies that began in 2009 when Hal Lewis took over as president. The sleek glimmering glass building on South Michigan Avenue, built by the Chicago firm Krueck and Sexton in 2007, replaced the older, dark yet haimish turn-of-the-century office building. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote in 2008 in the Architectural Record that the “10-story building resembles a shimmering piece of quartz exquisitely inserted into a great stone wall, its faceted, folded facade of glass glinting in the morning sun.” And yet its timing was bad. As the Tribune reported in January, the crash meant Spertus’s endowment dropped 22% in 2012 from the previous two years. Spertus still owed $43.6 million of the $56.1 million it had borrowed to build the new building. When the new building opened, there was a kosher restaurant open every day; now the dining area is only open for special events. Space is now being rented out to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Meadville Lombard Theological School.

The “Uncovered” exhibit is in a small gallery on the ground floor, across from the front desk. The exhibit is free and on ground level to encourage passersby to walk in. As I visited, a stream of Art Institute students passed through the front door to attend class, without even glancing at the exhibit. This is unfortunate because this is a fascinating, thoughtful exploration of Jewish modernist artists, and all of the artwork comes from Spertus’s own archives.


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