Chicago’s Driehaus Museum: Continuing the Tradition of Philanthropy Through Art

There is a stained-glass window that is on display at the Richard H. Driehaus Museum in Chicago. Part of the current exhibition, “Eternal Light: The Sacred-Stained Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany,” its central theme depicts John the Baptist greeting Jesus with a kiss of charity; a gesture meant to symbolize the conferring of peace and love upon all.

Charity by Frederick Wilson at Driehaus Museum in Chicago
Tiffany Studios, American (1902-1932), designed after Frederick Wilson (American, born Ireland, 1858-1932). Charity, 1925. Leaded and enameled glass. The Collection of Richard H. Driehaus, Chicago, 40112.a. Photography by Michael Tropea, 2018.

Fittingly entitled “Charity,” the work is part of Frederick Wilson’s ecclesiastical windows created during his time at Tiffany Studios throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The benevolent theme was popular with churches in post-Civil War America seeking a more welcoming approach to ministry. 

Simultaneously, the window reflects the new wave of philanthropy that was taking root during that era, known as Gilded Age America, which is also the Museum’s predominant art motif. 

“We are a museum of art, architecture, design, and Chicago history housed in a fully-restored Gilded Age mansion,” says Anna Musci, director of external affairs.

With National Philanthropy Day having just been observed on Nov. 15, it is apt that the Museum is displaying a work that speaks to the philanthropic legacy embedded in this place of charitable giving

The mansion itself was commissioned originally by Samuel and Matilda Nickerson in 1879. Avid art collectors and co-founders of the Art Institute of Chicago, the couple gave back to the city they loved through art. They specifically commissioned a purpose-built gallery for their home to be able to share their extensive art collection and love of art with students by opening this space to them to view, sketch, and learn from their collection of contemporary art.

“[The Gallery] was always a place of learning and exploring art,” says Musci. “The Museum is continuing that legacy today.”

The Nickersons donated much of their extensive art collection to the Art Institute of Chicago for future generations to enjoy. Today, 120 years later, their mansion is still contributing to the Chicago community through its new life as the Richard H. Driehaus Museum; sharing its collections, exhibitions, and educational and cultural programs. 

A Legacy of Giving

The mansion in which the Driehaus Museum is housed is a Chicago Landmark that was saved twice: once by 100 prominent Chicago citizens in 1919, and again by philanthropist and businessman Richard H. Driehaus, who sponsored its restoration from 2003 to 2008. Driehaus is a prominent figure in the preservation and landmark community with a particular interest in the Gilded Age, a time when investing in local communities through benevolent giving became embedded in American culture.

As the United States experienced unprecedented economic growth throughout the nineteenth century, Chicago businessmen and women, such as the Nickersons, the Palmers, and Marshall Field, met the responsibility to care for their communities in various ways.

Bertha Palmer extended her own “kiss of charity” to Jane Addams Hull-House by donating both her time and money to help provide social and educational opportunities to the working class. Retail tycoon Marshall Field’s philanthropic legacy is still present in Chicago, both as another co-founder of the Art Institute of Chicago, and through the Field Museum of Natural History, to which Field bequeathed more than $10 million dollars. 

This year the Driehaus Museum launched a contemporary art initiative called “A Tale of Today,” thus enabling visitors to have an immersive Gilded Age experience through the prism of contemporary work. And in 2019, the Museum launched a two-year Fellowship Program. 

Specifically, the Museum seeks to better serve the youth of Chicago. Their six-month Fellowship Program engages four emerging Chicago-based artists of color, offering them a rigorous art curriculum led by a Curatorial Fellow. It runs from March to September and has a formal application process.

Driehaus Museum
A group of students visit the Driehaus Museum.

“Since inception, we’ve always had education as part of our mission,” notes Liz Tillmanns, assistant director of communications. “We’re starting to expand our education department and grow our partnerships in order to have more connections to the community.” 

The Museum is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization. Help support its educational efforts by making a tax-deductible donation to the Richard H. Driehaus Museum today.

 

The Richard H. Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St., Chicago, Illinois 60611. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone: 312-482-8933. Website: driehausmuseum.org