BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
On September 12 Chicago’s “Marble Palace” will glow in the opulent light cast by Gilded Age treasures and shimmering chandeliers as the Richard H. Driehaus Museum hosts its 2019 gala in support of the museum’s exhibitions, educational and cultural programming, as well as the ongoing care of the historic building. As the only surviving window into the lifestyle of many of Chicago’s founders, the museum not only celebrates the past but also puts it in context with today.
The evening begins with a cocktail reception and viewing of Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany, opening this month. The exhibition, organized by the Driehaus, is the first to focus on Tiffany’s ecclesiastical window commissions—and explores these works in the context of both the art and social history of the period.
A new app called The Driehaus Museum Presents: Chicago’s Tiffany Trail, that can be downloaded via the museum’s website this month, includes 14 stops throughout Chicago, including the neighboring Murphy Auditorium, built in 1926, which happens to be the setting for this year’s gala.
The evening includes a delicious dinner, provided by catering sponsor Jewell Events Catering, and a live auction featuring exclusive travel opportunities and a private celebrity-chef dinner in the museum’s historic ballroom.
At last year’s gala, Richard Driehaus described what others on the program called his “heroic act of preservation”: “In 2002 I was thinking that I might buy a bust from the Nickerson Mansion for my office, but a friend said: ‘Buy the whole building.’ I have always had a passion for preserving beautiful objects from the past. We feel that we have put the Gilded Age in context, and that it is so alive and vital again is a real plus.”
But, Driehaus describes, he was not the first to preserve the house when it was endangered. In 1919, 100 concerned city leaders joined together to protest at threat to its survival. More recently, it was the contract firm of Bulley & Andrews, a part of Chicago’s architectural landscape since the 1890s, who served as general contractors for the project, restoring the landmark Nickerson Mansion into its current incarnation as the Driehaus. The firm, which has also taken on restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed Robie House, a renovation of The Newberry Library, and The Yard for Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater, and in 2015 helped reinvent the Chicago Athletic Association into a destination hotel.
We asked the Museum’s executive director, Richard Townsend, to tell us more about upcoming initiatives of Chicago’s surviving Gilded Age treasure.
The Driehaus Museum stands alone in Chicago evoking the Gilded Age, when so many of our most important leaders lived. Do you think frequently of those people, and those times, as you work in that beautiful building?
Absolutely. I think constantly about Samuel and Mathilda Nickerson, in whose footprint we live today, and consider their legacy. The Nickersons built a very modern structure for their McCormickville home—a laboratory for innovation with fully plumbed bathrooms, electricity, and an extreme method of fireproofing—and were extraordinary patrons of the arts. They collected contemporary art, as well as antiquities of the great Asian civilizations, and invited students to come and study and learn from their collections.
Their home—our museum today—was an incubator of creativity and a manifestation of the modern metropolis that was the resurrected Chicago. I think constantly on how we can honor and continue that legacy.
Are there certain figures in Chicago’s past that you most admire? What about that period in Chicago’s history that the Driehaus Museum so amazingly represents is comparable to the city today?
Well, I’ve expounded on the Nickersons, but naturally there are many other Chicagoans whom I admire, including Chicagoans of the Gilded Age from George Washington Maher to Ida B. Wells. Bulley & Andrews, a firm started during the Gilded Age by the Bulley family will be honored at our 2019 gala on September 12. For generations, the Bulley family and their employees have made many significant contributions to historic preservation and cultural arts efforts in Chicago, including the Driehaus Museum.
What really strikes me is that the Chicago of today resembles so much the Chicago of yesterday in terms of the rich contributions of our immigrants—during the time of 1893 World’s Fair, two-thirds of the city’s first language was not English—and our response to our neighbors of different races, languages, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds remains an issue that we continue to strive to come to terms with successfully.
Tell us more about the selection of Bulley & Andrews and the Bulley family as this year’s honorees.
I am personally delighted that we are honoring a family and their company that have been pillars of the community since the Gilded Age, and the creation of our landmark building. Allan Bulley, Jr. and his son Ally and their families are lovely people as well as terrific civic leaders. Bulley & Andrews’ role in the meticulous restoration of the Nickerson Mansion, our home, was innovative and we owe so much to their creative solutions in the restoration process.
Tell us more about the ways you are finding to mix the present with the past.
The title of our contemporary initiative, ‘A Tale of Today,’ is the subtitle of a satirical novel by Mark Twain published in 1873, which gave the epoch its name, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. ‘Gilded’ in this case, being pejorative: a veneer; being superficial. The Yinka Shonibare exhibition has allowed us the opportunity to interrogate the past and to be proactive in promoting diversity and parity within our museum and the field.
Our small but nimble institution is taking leadership positions in this issue that is so critical to our city and country. I am especially proud of our Joyce Foundation-funded fellowship program for local emerging ALAANA artists. I knew it would be a worthwhile initiative, but it has invigorated the museum in ways I never expected.
Educational initiatives I know are so important to you. What are some of the strides here that you are making in this area?
When we celebrated our tenth anniversary last year, we decided to make education a larger priority for the institution. We are excited to see the plans we put in place bear fruit in the coming months as we engage more closely with our community and learn how we can more effectively connect with children and youth.
The Driehaus Museum tells as story that isn’t being told anywhere else in Chicago, and we see a response to the art, history, and design encapsulated in the museum that makes those stories very real and opens the minds of a younger generation to imagine what is possible for their life. We are also developing partnerships with other non-profits who reach out to youth and work to share with them the transformative power of art. We look forward to sharing more developments on this front soon—stay tuned.
Tell us about the museum’s new exhibition and what about exhibition planning interests you most.
Eternal light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany presents an exciting opportunity to organize and present an exhibition that’s certainly within our wheelhouse, but that looks at this traditional material in a new and innovative light. With the addition of loans from major public collections throughout the United States, we examine this much beloved and familiar material through the lens of its progressiveness and modernity. Made by accomplished artists—of number of whom were women—these windows represent a shift in religious practice and social progressiveness at the turn of the last century.
Tell us about your path to the Driehaus and what you like most about your job.
I’ve directed young museums across the country—I’m an institution builder. I’m excited to be at the Driehaus Museum at a critical point in its development. Having just celebrated our tenth anniversary, we are moving into our next phase as we increase our service to and engagement with the public and fully inhabit our role as a cultural community resource—very much in the traditions of the Nickerson family, who built this house, and the founder of our museum, Richard H. Driehaus, who as a Chicago son has sought to honor his hometown and seeks ever more meaningful ways in which to make it a better place for all.
Tell us more about Richard Driehaus, his collections, and his multitude of accomplishments that continue to fascinate visitors to the museum.
Richard’s exemplary generosity and his vision are examples that guide us constantly. Richard cares deeply about the visitor experience, and that’s what drives what we do and how we do it.
How do you interact with other museums, both in Chicago and further afield. Is there a museum that is most similar to your collections and surroundings?
We are on a daily basis engaged with our peers throughout Chicago, as well as across the United States and around the world. While the Driehaus is a member of a collective of Gilded Age museums in the U.S., which include the Frick Collection, the Morgan Library, the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, and Hearst Castle in California, for example. We are also working with scholars and museums in New York, Paris, Prague, and London, among others, as we develop programming and exhibitions.
How do you see the museum evolving in the next five years under your leadership?
We are seeking to find ways in which we can serve Chicago and its people better. So my crystal ball reveals in five years a deeply rooted community organization, well integrated into the city’s cultural landscape that continues to surprise and delight!
For further information about Driehaus Museum, visit driehausmuseum.org.