|Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1966
Chicago Sun-Times, February 12, 1967
Oral history of the origin of the Museum of Contemporary Art leads back to 1960 when Joseph R. Shapiro chaired the program committee for the Society for Contemporary American Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Unpublished accounts from within the MCA's Library & Archives suggest that as a result of this exhibition that Richard Feigen's July 1960 gallery newsletter called "shockingly bad," serious conversations began regarding a new Chicago museum specifically for contemporary art works.
Within the MCA Library & Archives a 3-page typewritten document details the 1963-1964 events that led to the museum's opening, including where the meetings were held and how many individuals showed up. The first two entries read:
December 18, 1963
Dan Brenner, Doris Butler, Mildred Fagen, Bernard Jacobs, Robert Mayer and Franz Schulze discussed the need for a museum of contemporary art in Chicago.
January 9, 1964
Meeting at the home of Doris Butler to which 25 artists, collectors, art dealers, art critics, and architects came to start formulating plans. Doris Butler elected Chairman; Alberta Friedlander, Co-chairman.
Forty-six people showed up at the third meeting, including Richard Feigen who became a member of the newly formed building site committee.
Two months later, the Gallery of Contemporary Art was incorporated as a "non-profit, educational institution." The document's statement of purpose reflects the intention of creating an art center on the model of a Kunsthalle - a non-collecting exhibition venue - with an art school.
To present exhibitions of paintings, sculpture, graphic arts, architecture and design representing contemporary art trends; to encourage, foster, promote and sponsor activities and presentations which would aim to increase public interest in contemporary art trends; to expand the artistic horizons of a growing art public through such activities which will include lectures, symposia, gallery talks, demonstrations, films, and related educational programs designed to further these purposes; to establish, conduct, operate and maintain an advanced school of instruction in any and all artistic technical educational fine arts courses and other subjects appertaining or relating thereto; to build, erect, maintain, equip, manage, lease and operate a gallery and all component parts deemed advisable or necessary to provide space for these activities and exhibitions; to engage in any and all other activities and promote any and all other purposes permitted by law to such not for profit corporation.
The early conversations included finding a venue for the new art center. In a move that would have presented a very different MCA beginning, the vacant US Court of Appeals building at 1212 N. Lake Shore Drive was considered.
On June 28, 1964, under the heading, Second City, Grace Glueck of the New York Times reported on the Chicago scene:
Though things are still at the talk stage, it looks as if Chicago, blessed with only one art museum, may soon boast two. If things go as planned by a group of eager citizens, the Art Institute of Chicago, an establishment roughtly comparable to New York's own Metropolitan, will share billing with a Gallery of Contemporary Art, hopefully to be housed in a building on Lake Shore Drive soon to be vacated by a Federal Court of Appeals.
Encouraged by recent countrywide soundings of people prominent in the arts, the citizens' group, headed by art critic Mrs. Doris Butler, is now trying to put together a board of directors. "We definitely want a museum of international scope," says architect Daniel Brenner, pro-tem treasurer of the group, "not just a provincial one - with the main focus on art of our time."
At the end of the 1964, at the point when the building committe was formed, Robert Mayer, Grace Hokin, Edwin Bergman, Joseph Shapiro, Sigmund Kunstadter, and Edward Weiss each pledged $5,000 (~$37,000 today), initiating generous individual gifts that continue today.
After attending meetings with city and state officials, the buiding committee realized the Court of Appeals building would not be an option without a Special Act of Congress. Apprently, the federal builing could not be handed over to the city unless it would be used for "Health, Welfare, Education or Executive purposes." In an August, 1965 letter by Doris Butler to the Gallery's general counsel, Marshall Holleb, she mentions that State Rep. Yates may be able to help as the building is within his district. Holleb had already discussed another option with Yates, who coincidentally was married to his older sister. The suggestion was to work with the Chicago Public Library who might be able to acquire the building through one of two separate different federal acts. In a 1995 recorded conversation, Martin Holleb stated that they abandoned further investigation into acquiring the court building because it was simply too big for their purposes and they'd have ended up sharing the space with other organizations.
Joseph Shapiro's son, Donn, was a real estate agent, and he thought one of his properties might be a good fit for his father's new venture. At the beginning of 1966, a one-story brick structure with a full basement, then in use by the Playboy Corporation, was found to be an ideal choice. Located on East Ontario Street, within the Chicago gallery district, the 18,000 square foot open-span space suited the Gallery of Contemporary Art's first needs. Hugh Hefner's lease was up in November, and the building's lease was signed over to the new art supporters.
On April 26, 1966, the board members decided to lease the building with an option to buy it for the firm price of $500,000. Board members present at that meeting were: Edwin Bergman, Dan Brenner, Doris Butler, Alberta Friedlander, Marshall Holleb, Robert Johnson, Robert Mayer, Joseph Shapiro, Aaron Siskind, John Walley. Marjorie Kovler and Leonard Horwich were also there as guests.
The following week, Doris Butler submitted a letter to the Board, summarizing the financial details from the meeting. At the end of the letter, she stated: "It is contemplated that the name of the Gallery of Contemporary Art be changed to use "Museum" as more appropriate to our aims and purpose."
On June 8, 1966, the Museum of Contemporary Art submitted its first press release: (Excerpts)
It was officially announced today that Chicago is to have a new Museum of Contemporary Art. Mr. Joseph Randall Shapiro, President, stated that the untiring efforts of a dedicated group of civic and cultural leaders for 2-1/2 years have culminated in the signing of a lease for the building at 237 East Ontario Street.
The Museum of Contemporary Art's Library & Archive has an original typewritten 17 bullet-point document, detailing the summary of activities from June 1966 to January 1967. Item #14 states: "Obtaining a $50,000 contribution from Hefner."
Hugh Hefner ended up giving $150,000 (equivalent to ~$1million in 2013) the museum's single largest gift. The Hugh M. Hefner foundation continues to be a supporter of the museum.
Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1967