Roger Brown Study Collection: Artists' Museum of Chicago
In 1972 Roger Brown was driving through South Dakota and came across a building with Artists Museum (figs. 1, 2) emblazoned on the cornice. It was the studio of Burnette G. Pletan, "World's Fastest Scenic Artist." The facade featured landscape paintings amid an odd placement of doors and windows. Brown must have slammed on the brakes for this trifecta: a masterwork of vernacular architecture, painting, and signage that was also an artist's studio. To call Brown an ardent appreciator of the vernacular is an understatement, and stumbling upon an "artist's museum" in the Black Hills of South Dakota turned out to be an epiphany. There was an "Out For Lunch" sign, so Brown may not have met Pletan (pronounced PLATE-en), but his photographs and memory of the building kick-started the idea for his own artists' museum.
Finding and acquiring objects of interest was a discipline Brown gleaned at SAIC. He credited the legacies of art historians Helen Gardner and Kathleen Blackshear, and their protégés (his teachers) Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, for transmitting an artist's collecting sensibility. Brown described his and other artists' collections as, "…in reality, physical manifestations of this sensibility. The exposure to these collections themselves does not cease to have great impact on anyone who sees them…I am thankful for the privilege of having studied at an institution where that sensibility could be learned and developed...[from] that specific lineage of teachers at the School of the Art Institute."
Documents in the Roger Brown Study Collection (RBSC) archive reveal Brown's various ideas for a museum of artist's collections in Chicago. In an undated letter to the mayor he suggested that the Cultural Center be annexed by the Art Institute, to be an independent branch for "a Museum of Culture—a Museum of Popular Arts." In May 1985 Brown filled out an Articles of Incorporation form (fig. 3) for the not-for-profit Artists Museum of Chicago, "to establish, maintain, and operate a museum for the purpose of displaying or promoting Chicago artists or art…." It's not clear if he actually filed the document.
Brown was a founder of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, and in 1995 he leased 1926 North Halsted Street to Intuit, to be its first home. Brown made a sketch of the storefront (fig. 4) with Intuit's name on one window and Artists Museum of Chicago on the other. (Intuit did not honor Brown's wish for the collection to be identified as such.) Then in late 1996 Brown gave his extensive collection of art and archival materials at 1926 North Halsted Street to SAIC, and RBSC opened its doors in January 1997. (Intuit and the RBSC shared the building until Intuit moved in 1998.)
In a letter to Curator Lisa Stone, Brown writes:
Somewhere among [my] slides you may come across some pictures of a building in Rosebud, South Dakota from 1972. A huge sign across the building proclaims it as Artists Museum—home of the world's fastest painter. I have often thought of referring to the collection as Artists Museum of Chicago. Not "Chicago Artists Museum" but "Artists' Museum of Chicago" because I feel the things in the collection are of universal appeal to all artists and people with a sense of the spiritual and mystical nature that material things can provoke…Hope this helps. Call me anytime.
Brown required a stimulating, object-filled environment to feed and support the demanding work of being an artist, and RBSC encapsulates his intensive, intuitive engagement with the material world. The collection is preserved as Brown left it, as a historic (albeit non-stuffy) house museum, throughout the second floor and two stairways. He fiercely believed in sidestepping boundaries between the fine and popular arts. The collection as a whole reflects the diversities and polarities he observed and experienced in 20th-century life, and reflects Brown's essentially democratic conviction that works of art from many cultures and genres be presented in an environment devoid of academic and economic hierarchies, where they can be appreciated as equal in value (fig. 5).
It was not assembled as an exposition of assumed polarities, or designations of difference, such as insider/outsider, high/low, designed/kitsch, fine art/popular art, etc. All the modes are present, but they are intermingled, noncompartmentalized, and open to the unexpected tangencies that occur among diverse things. Complicated at first glance, the RBSC is nevertheless cohesive and interrelated, an ecosystem and a work of art. We strive to operate the RBSC, Artists' Museum of Chicago (fig. 6), as Brown envisioned.