Art Institute of Chicago

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1879

After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the city’s art scene was devastated. It was Chicago philanthropists who rebuilt it. One notable funder was Charles Hutchinson, who founded the Art Institute of Chicago.

Hutchinson’s father had made and lost fortunes in determined pursuit of money. The younger Hutchinson was a savvy businessman himself (he was running a bank before he was 30, and was president of the Board of Trade by 34), but he also had a civic drive. He said everyone should put as much into a city as he gets out of it.

His philanthropy started early. Having watched his father’s own example, he thought Chicago was becoming too materialistic. The fire, and the renewed interest in culture that it created, presented him with an opportunity to put a spotlight on creations of the human spirit that might counterbalance runaway materialism. At age 28, Hutchinson led a drive to start the Art Institute. It opened in 1879, and moved to its permanent home in 1883. He used his business connections to build the organization, convincing family friends to donate or bequeath their private collections to the institute. Determined to influence all types of Chicagoans, he insisted that admittance to the museum be free three days a week. The institute also housed an art school—one which would produce great artists like Georgia O’Keefe. A research library was added in 1901, and a modern wing in 2009. In between those dates, the institution grew into one of the premier fine-art museums and schools in the country, housing a permanent collection of more than 300,000 works.

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