People & Events: Charles Lawrence Hutchinson (1854-1924) and the Art Institute of Chicago
Benjamin Hutchinson made a fortune -- and lost it again -- on the Chicago Board of Trade. His son, Charles, followed him into business and was running a bank in his twenties. He served as president of the Board of Trade by the time he was 34. But making money did not motivate him -- civic duty did.
"Everybody should put into the city in which he lives as much as he gets out of it," he said, and devoted half of his time -- and half of his annual income -- to philanthropy. He served on the boards of the Auditorium, Hull-House, the University of Chicago and the YMCA as well as those of orphanages, hospitals and schools.
His greatest passion was reserved for the Art Institute of Chicago, which he helped found in 1882, when he was 28 years old. He had seen how his father had burnt out (and eventually had to be committed to a Wisconsin sanitarium) from a single-minded focus on money making. Charles felt that art was a counterbalance to the overly materialistic society Chicagoans were building. Hutchinson was no elitist, however. "We have built this institution for the public, not for a few," he stated. "...We want the people of Chicago to feel that it is their property." In the 1890s, the Institute charged no admission three days a week, including the workers' day off, Sunday. Those democratic Sundays drew up to four thousand people of all economic classes to the museum's galleries.
The Art Institute's first home was a Burnham and Root building of 1887. Hutchison, his closest friend Martin Ryerson and their wives traveled the world together, searching out masterpieces with which they could fill their museum. New York newspapers mocked the free-spending manner of two wealthy businessmen from America's agricultural heartland, displaying plenty of regional bias. Hutchinson "probably paid $1,000 a foot for his Rubenses, Rembrandts and Van Dykes, and we presume the citizens of Chicago will give him a triumphal procession along the lakefront when they arrive, carrying them and him in huge floats, drawn by a team of milk-white Berkshire hogs," they blared. Hutchinson's response was calm and earnest: "We have made our money in pigs, but is that any reason why we should not spend it on paintings?"
Hutchinson reached out to friends like Bertha Palmer, Chicago's elite social queen, and convinced her to leave her collection of Impressionist paintings to the Institute. Ryerson was friendly with contemporary painters like Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet and Jean-Auguste Renoir, and bought many of their works.
Along with the galleries, the Art Institute ran a school that featured teachers like Lorado Taft, considered one of the greatest American sculptors of his time. Subsequent students of the school who became famous include Georgia O'Keeffe and Claes Oldenberg.
The Institute soon outgrew its quarters and Hutchinson arranged for a new building in Grant Park, on the site of the World's Columbian Exposition. Mail-order merchant Aaron Montgomery Ward's crusade to clear the lakefront threatened the new facility, but the museum won a rare reprieve when all of its neighbors agreed to let it stay. It occupies the same location to this day.
Although the Hutchinsons were childless, they loved children. One niece recalled Sunday visits to her uncle's house. "He would lead us in a wild romp over the house. At first he would chase us and then we him, upstairs and down, our shrieks of laughter answered by his whoops and shouts!" Thanksgivings, he would bring a dozen turkeys to Hull-House for the children.
From the founding of the Institute to his death in 1924, Charles L. Hutchinson served as its president. On his deathbed, he told a friend, "I love to lie here and think of it -- of all it will do for the people in the years to come!"
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