When I was growing up, the Art Institute of Chicago had a real, honest-to-goodness treasure chest behind the central staircase on the main floor. This was not just a plain box, up-graded to Arabian Night stature via rose-colored remembrances. It was a real treasure chest, worthy of Long John Silver’s scowl or Aladdin’s cave. Its brass-studded lid was elaborately engraved, its lush interior was upholstered in red velvet, and it was filled with glittering coins. A small sign above this remarkable container proclaimed that any cash contributed (Clink. Clink. Clink) to the chest would pay for art student tuition at the Art Institute School.
Art student tuition!
Romance on top of Romance!
What child intent on becoming an adventuress could stand before such an Altar of Art and resist tossing pennies, nickels, dimes and dreams through the burnished-brass mesh to bounce, glisten and tinkle against the other nickels, dimes, quarters and sometimes even dollar bills already amassed below?
I glared and stared at the treasure. I dreamed, not of what money could buy, but of lives dedicated to sculpture, to painting, to art. I conjured up images of slim and starving artists in garret rooms. At the bottom of that chest, I saw what I wanted from life: The pure and unadulterated passion to create, and therefore to be really and truly alive.
My father had a lifetime family membership to the Art Institute of Chicago, for which he had paid a princely sum. This membership entitled us to an unparalleled array of earthly delights, including discounts at the gift shop (my second favorite exhibit at the museum), admission to the Members Library (a sanctified place with polished wood chairs behind smooth, wooden tables at which it would be a sacrilege to read anything less erudite than illuminated manuscripts), and priority admission into every Art Institute exhibition.
This life-time membership imparted to each of my father’s children a sense of boundless elitism. During a recent trip to Chicago on a pilgrimage to the Art Institute, I discovered that an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s paintings was all the rage. People were standing five wide in a line that staggered down the stairs and continued down Michigan Boulevard. Not for me, though, the common herd. I gazed pittyingly at the rabble, strode up the steps, and flashed my father’s membership card at the guard.
“Go right in,” he said. And I did.
Other children may have had their own speed boats or yachts, country club memberships, jewels, boyfriends, tuitions at Ivy League colleges, gardeners, butlers and cars, and in our neighborhood, they did. But we children of Samuel Reuben…we were members of the Art Institute! We strode past glum guards with confidence and aplomb. We knew every inch of the place, from the administration offices, to the school, to the Thorn Miniature Rooms where tiny parlors and palaces evoked images of what dream domiciles might be. We marched up the stairway beneath Picasso’s Guernica, we drifted beyond boring Chinese vases and expressionless Buddhas, and like cream, rose to the inexpressible wonder of the paintings and sculpture on the second floor.
Now, one thing I have learned over the past few decades is that objects which remain on view in one’s mind do not necessarily remain on view in one’s museum. This means that the “permanent exhibit” in my head doesn’t coincide with any permanent exhibit installed on the Art Institute’s second floor.
Central to my permanent exhibit is a painting of a peasant girl who has obviously just heard something that set her spirit on fire. It is called “The Song of the Lark,” and looking at it, I realized for the first time what art is and what an artist must do: Take what is transitory, extract what is meaningful, and successfully render that thing, instant or interaction permanent.
My first love … my first encounter … my first awe before objective, external art, was “The Song of the Lark.” And in my heart and mind, the Art Institute is still the most wonderful museum in the world.
There are a lot of Monets in that permanent exhibit that exists in my brain on the Art Institute’s second floor. Hay stacks, bridges and smeary sunsets in various shadowy shades of pastel. There are a few Van Gogh’s and some pointillists in the park. Rodin’s statue “The Thinker” once made a guest appearance, hunched forward with his elbow on his knee and his chin balanced on his clenched fist. Seeing him in this classic pose was a bit of a shocker. Like realizing for the first time that it wasn’t Shakespeare who wrote clichés … it was everybody else.
My wanderings through the rooms and corridors of the Art Institute had a timeless quality. If I had a dentist appointment on Michigan Boulevard at 3 p.m. and was supposed to meet my father in front of the Art Institute at 4 p.m., I would spend from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the upper reaches of the second floor, hurrying through rooms displaying dismal deaths on crucifixes so that I could linger among Toulouse Lautrec’s high-kicking ladies at the Moulin Rouge.
If a quick check outside the museum indicated that my father hadn’t arrived by 5, I would pop back for fifteen minute forays, never going above the first floor. A short trip to the photography exhibit and back outside at 5:15. No father? A dash down to the ladies room and up to the museum gift shop. Peer through a kaleidoscope, try on some Aztec earrings. Back outside. Still no father? If his non-appearance occurred in the winter, for which Chicago’s icy winds are justifiably infamous, I would wait for him inside, hoping against hope that he would show up before the Art Institute closed (he always did).
But if it were summer, I would amble halfway down the museum’s front steps and loiter under, against, or on the tail of one of the Art Institute’s two majestic lions.
These lions, by the way, belonged to Samuel Reuben’s children. No matter how many other people’s children were waiting outside the Art Institute for how many mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers, there was always an empty spot under the lion’s chest or on the lion’s tail for us.
The lions were and are fierce, strong, protective, valiantly aggressive, graceful, noble and true. They will be guarding the entrance to the Art Institute until the world ends. The lions in front of the main library on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan are granite slouches compared to the stalwart giants that brave Michigan Avenue’s winter winds on Chicago’s lake shore.
These lions, the icy, lucid, dark winter nights, the erratic stop-start stream of traffic, the bitter blasts of windy-city wind, the warmth of a softly lighted lobby, the near familiarity of art – not an exalted and intimidating ART, but a warm, friendly, emotionally electrifying art – that is the Art Institute that my usually tardy, but always reliable father gave to his children.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben.