The Keeper

Susanne Ghez began working at the Renaissance Society on January 29, 1973, a date she can recall as easily as others know their birthdays.

However, amid the celebrations toasting to a forty-year devotion to the Renaissance Society–a non-collecting contemporary art museum located on the University of Chicago campus–and to contemporary art, the fact that Susanne Ghez will not be with the museum much longer cannot be overlooked. In May of last year, Ghez announced that she would be stepping down from her positions as executive director and chief curator in June 2013.

Like the Renaissance Society itself, often described as the “mouse that roars” because of its broad influence in the art world despite its modest location, Ghez too possesses an understated but undeniable presence. Despite short notice, she happily agreed to a personal interview; and in person, she offered tea multiple times and thanked me profusely. Perhaps it was the chunky art deco bracelets on her wrist, or the metallic silver Converse she is known to pair with simple black suits that created an elegant boldness as she crossed her legs and humbly repeated, “I’m a very lucky woman.”

She was hired on a part-time basis to complete the two person staff in charge of overseeing the museum. Searching for employment in close proximity to the University of Chicago Lab Schools, where all three of her daughters attended, working at the Renaissance Society meant that Ghez could be at the school to pick up each of her daughters at their different release times. Assisting the then-director and curator Katharine Lee, Ghez was responsible for what she refers to as the “all other category” which included book-keeping, registrar and administrative tasks, and often even nailing artwork to walls. It was only about a year and a half later, in September of 1974, that the young part-time worker was offered the position of executive director and curator of the Renaissance Society. Ghez accepted and has remained at “the best job in the world” for the last four decades.

During the more than 150 exhibitions of Ghez’s tenure, the Renaissance Society has broadened the scale of its acquisitions and its influence within the art world. The Society has showcased renowned contemporary artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and Mike Kelley. The staff now consists of nine regular employees and a handful of need-based employees hired to install artwork and maneuver large pieces of installations.  In addition, the Society’s budget, a modest $25,000 when Ghez became an employee, has jumped to an astounding $1.8 million.

When Ghez was new to the Renaissance Society, the artists who were shown in the gallery were primarily found locally. “In the beginning,” Ghez remarks,  “taking trips to New York was a really big deal.” But the scope of the gallery has grown, and Ghez now travels all over the world to view artwork and search for new artists. In an interview conducted by the Renaissance Society to discuss Ghez’s career, former Executive Director of the Renaissance Society, Chuck Thurow remarked, “[Susanne] can take the international and bring it to Chicago. At the same time she can take Chicago artists and if she’s showing them, everyone else in the world says…‘We should pay attention as well.’ ” Upon Ghez’s exit, she will be passing the torch to Solveig Ovstebo, the current director of the Bergen Kunsthall in Norway.

Although the Renaissance Society has been located at the University of Chicago since its founding in 1915 and gratefully receives rent-free space and IT services, it is an organization independent from the University. Ghez whole-heartedly views the separation between the two organizations as positive. She remarks with a laugh, “Autonomy has served us well for almost a centennial.” And it is this autonomy that Ghez attributes to the Society’s ability to give artists the freedom to showcase their work without restriction. In addition, it has allowed Ghez “to stay true to [her] mission of promoting art and artists” which she regards as her greatest achievement during her career. She states, in almost mantra-like fashion: “I think about art. Not about [myself]. Not about the Society. Art.”

In a video to commemorate her fortieth anniversary, Ghez’s colleagues gathered to speak of the contributions she had made to the museum.  They often describe her as a risk taker and a woman with great vision.  The Renaissance Society Board President, Greg Cameron mentioned, “Susanne has an uncanny eye.” In person, Ghez simply explains, “I’m not afraid of failure.” Although she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2006, when Ghez first became executive director and curator at the museum she held neither a Ph.D nor an M.F.A.  “I studied art history at UC Berkley and Columbia University but I don’t have a Ph.D.,” Ghez says. “I’ve never really had too far to fall.” She continues, “You have to jump. See it. Want it. Go after it.”

Above all else, however, Ghez’s colleagues note her ability to spot artists on the rise. Between 1990 and 2000 the Renaissance Society presented twenty-two artists’ first U.S. solos. In the 1970s the society featured the then little known Julian Schnabel, and in the eighties, Jeff Koons. Other artists like Isa Genzken and Franz West went onto major careers after being featured at the Society. When asked about Ghez artist Kara Walker stated that Ghez could “in a way, predict the future.” It is this almost supernatural ability that has helped the Renaissance Society to rise to the level of premiere contemporary art museums in the world.

Despite the Renaissance Society’s reputation within the global art community, Ghez acknowledges that the student body and the community know little about the museum. Just a few signs dotted around Cobb Hall mark the museum’s presence on the campus. When I entered the museum for our interview, more than a dozen students were sitting on the benches just outside. Ghez sighs when she states, “The absolute hardest thing to do is to get students to walk across that threshold.”

Ghez’s 40 years with the Renaissance Society have been marked with growth and success. In 2002 she received the Award for Curatorial Excellence from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and in 2012 she was co-curator of Documenta, a 100-day exhibition of modern art that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. Echoing her success is the Renaissance Society itself.

When asked what she hopes for the Renaissance Society after she leaves, Ghez firmly replied, “I hope it thrives.”