(NOTE: THIS PRESENTATION WAS GIVEN AT A HISTORY HAPPY HOUR ON OCT. 19, 2023)
Robert Allerton had a relationship with the Art Institute of Chicago for the entirety of his adult life. Before he went to Europe to study art, he took a few classes at the School of the Art Institute. He was an annual member, a governing life member, trustee, and then honorary president of the Board of Trustees. Each winter, Robert traveled extensively collecting art and inspiration. Much of his collected works were donated to the Art Institute – over 6000 pieces in total.
Some history on the Art Institute: In 1866, the Chicago Academy of Design was founded by local artists in some rented rooms on Clark Street. It was financed by member dues and patron donations. Four years later, the school moved into its own building on Adams Street, which was destroyed just one year later in the Great Fire of Chicago 1871. Due to the financial and managerial problems after this loss, in 1878, business leaders formed a board of trustees and founded the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, expanding the mission beyond education and exhibitions to include collection. In 1879, the Art Institute of Chicago was founded to house the collection. The Chicago Academy was eventually renamed the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the two together are one of the few remaining unified art institutions in the United States.
Robert’s knowledge of the Art Institute likely began as a youth, given his place among the social elite of Chicago. Robert’s father, Samuel Waters Allerton was one of the directors of the planning commission of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, so Robert would have been privy to the plans to turn the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building into the home of the Art Institute at the end of the fair. We often credit the fair as the spark that ignited Robert’s desire to study art as both he and his friend Frederic Clay Barlett left for Munich that same year, but he had already taken 5 days of Art Institute classes before he left for Munich. He studied three years there and then another two years in Paris, before he came home to manage The Farms for his father. Robert had joined the Art Institute as an annual member in 1894. In 1902, he became a governing life member, and in 1918 he was elected trustee. In 1911, Robert donated a sculpture by John Donoghue entitled Young Sophocles Leading the Chorus of Victory after the Battle of Salamis, but his notable gifts to the Institute began in earnest in the 1920s and continued throughout his life.
Robert was elected the first Distinguished Benefactor of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1923. A bronze tablet installed near the museum’s entrance at that time listed Robert and other Chicago notables as donors of more than $25,000 each. His election coincided with the gift of works by the artist August Rodin: small bronze castings of his 1891 Fallen Carytide and 1892 Sorrow, plus, drawings from his later period, and of course, the bronze casting of the 1881 Adam that Robert had purchased after Rodin’s death. In 1924, with the Institute’s permission, Robert commissioned Charles Laing of Chicago to create a copy of Adam in limestone for his own garden. That copy was toppled by a park visitor in 1975 and a new copy was made with material left in strategic places so it lacks some of the artistic finesse of the original. If you go to the Art Institute to view the bronze casting of Adam on exhibit, you should take a picture of the limestone version from here to compare.
In 1928, as chairman of the Art Institute’s Decorative Arts Department, Robert funded and stocked a new wing in memory of Agnes Allerton, his stepmother, who had died 4 years before. Named the Agnes Allerton Gallery of Textiles, Robert gave the laces and textiles in Agnes’ collection to the Institute. Robert continued to give artwork to the Art Institute through his lifetime and in 1956, the Art Institute named Robert the honorary President of the Board of Trustees, having served on that committee for almost 40 years at that point. In 1963, one year before his death, when newspapers reported that Robert planned to bequeath $500,000 to the Art Institute in his will, an interviewer mentioned to Robert that he was the most generous living benefactor of the museum. Robert said, “That can’t be true. Why, Mrs. Sterling Morton just gave one million dollars for the Morton Wing.” But it was true – Robert had donated double that amount. The Art Institute recognized Robert’s lifetime contributions by naming the original 1893 building The Robert Allerton Building in 1968.
You can celebrate Robert’s love for art and his generous contributions to the Art Institute by visiting the Art Institute to see the works donated by Robert that remain on display to this day. Illinois residents can take advantage of free admission on certain days each year. You can learn more about admission to the Art Institute at their website. Or simply take a stroll through the formal gardens at Allerton Park to see the art collection that Robert loved enough to put in his own backyard.