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Separation Anxiety

A little known but magnificent collection of American impressionism just lost half its storage and exhibition space. Now its caretakers face difficult decisions about its future.



For Sidney Hamper and his wife, Grace, caretakers of the John H. Vanderpoel Memorial Art Collection, every picture really does tell a story. Take Roscona at Sunrise, a scene of a tall ship in a Venetian harbor that assumes a prominent spot in a back alcove of the Vanderpoel Gallery in Beverly. It was painted in 1892 by marine artist Walter Brown, a friend of the Dutch-born John Vanderpoel, who was an influential teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for more than 30 years.

"Vanderpoel had specifically asked Brown to do this painting for the World's Columbian Exposition, and it took first prize," says Sidney Hamper. "Then it went out on exhibit through-out the United States before ending up in [Brown's] family home in Rhode Island, where it hung in the dining room for years." Hamper doesn't have to consult the gallery's exten-sive inventory to tell you that Roscona was donated to the collection in 1936.

The 200 paintings crammed onto the walls of the gallery--located inside Ridge Park field house, at 9625 S. Longwood--are just a portion of one of the largest collections of American impressionism in the midwest. Yet not many Chicagoans outside of art experts are even aware of its existence.

Since 1914, former students and colleagues of Vanderpoel's have donated hundreds of works made between the 1880s and the 1940s. There are portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and figure and plein air paintings by artists who spent most or all of their time in the Chicago area--Frederick Freer, John Johansen, Pauline Palmer, Tunis Ponsen. There are temperas by Maxfield Parrish, prints by Mary Cassatt, Whistler, and Grant Wood, and many works by Vanderpoel himself. The collection's value is unknown. "We're afraid to have it appraised--we don't want to know," says Grace Hamper. It's safe to say, though, that some works might be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, with several in the million-dollar range.

"It's certainly one of the few concentrated holdings of fine arts by Chicago-area artists," says Wendy Greenhouse, an independent art historian and curator. "It's altogether a choice collection that deserves much more exposure and accessibility."

The John H. Vanderpoel Art Association, which administers the collection, survives on donations and a small inheritance, so it doesn't have much of a budget for publicity or conservation. Over the last two decades, it has been able to have only one or two paintings a year conserved; Roscona was one of them. The gallery is open a few hours a day, a few days a week; though it has staged several guest exhibits and lectures in recent years, it would like to do more. It's never had a high profile, much less courted controversy.

But that has changed. For 35 years the association had maintained another gallery besides the one at Ridge Park: it had subleased space from the Beverly Arts Center, which shared a building with the private Morgan Park Academy. When the arts center moved into a new facility last fall, the association and the academy became embroiled in a lease dispute that ended with the Hampers removing all the art that was there back into the field house. The sudden turn of events has left Vanderpoel Art Association members mulling the fate of a collection that has run out of space--and may be running out of time.

"It was like an eviction," says Sidney Hamper, who's considering legal action. "But I pretty much had to go along with it. We are merely the custodians of what's here, and I had a fiduciary duty to protect this collection for the people and citizens of Illinois."

Johannes van der Poel was born near Haarlem, Holland, in 1857, the seventh of ten children; his sister Mathilde also became an artist. Their parents, Jan and Maria, ran a flax business. "His mother probably worked herself to death," says Jimmie Lee Buehler, a writer and lay historian who's been a Vanderpoel Art Association board member since the mid-1980s. "He loved women, and I think missed his mother. Many of his paintings show women working."

In 1868, a year after Maria died, Jan and his children emigrated to Chicago, settling in Pilsen. Jan was a day laborer who became a city clerk, a job he held until he died at 82. When the renamed John Henry Vanderpoel was 14, he was in a school wrestling accident that crippled him for life--pictures show a short, hunched figure. In 1878 he graduated from the Chicago Academy of Design (renamed the School of the Art Institute in 1881) and became a professor of drawing and painting there. Vanderpoel was revered by his students; Georgia O'Keeffe praised him as "one of the few real teachers I have known."

He took a leave of absence in the mid-1880s to further his studies in Paris and to tour Europe. In 1893, a year after losing sight in one eye, he exhibited five paintings at the World's Columbian Exposition, where he also sat on the jury for the Palace of Fine Arts. He married in 1896, and the following year he and his wife moved to Beverly, into a house at 9319 S. Pleasant that's still standing. A Vanderpoel work took the bronze medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, and three years later the artist was commissioned to paint an elaborate ceiling mural in DePaul University's College Theatre, which was demolished in 1979.

In 1908, Vanderpoel published The Human Figure, an art instruction text that's still in print. A bound volume of the book's original sketches, donated by the Art Institute, is on view in the Vanderpoel Gallery. At the behest of friend and neighbor John A. Campbell, Vanderpoel left the Art Institute in 1910 to head the art academy of the People's University, in University City, Missouri; Campbell, an advertising man, was living there temporarily while working on a publicity campaign for the school. A year later Vanderpoel, at age 53, suffered a heart attack after dining at the Campbells' home. He was buried in Mount Greenwood Cemetery.

In 1913, Vanderpoel's sister Marie Leeneer heard that an art club was selling off its possessions, among them a painting by her brother called The Buttermakers. She told Campbell's wife, Elizabeth, who reportedly said, "That picture ought to belong to Beverly Hills and to hang in the school named for your brother." (The Vanderpoel Grammar School, now called Vanderpoel Elementary Magnet School, had just been built.) Elizabeth and her husband began calling on the artist's friends. They managed to raise $650 to buy the painting, says Sidney Hamper. "It was the only one we ever paid for," he says. The Buttermakers looks like a Dutch scene, but it's actually set in Delavan, Wisconsin, where Vanderpoel ran a summer art school at the turn of the century.

Dudley Crafts Watson, a Chicago artist who'd just become the first director of the Milwaukee Art Institute (now the Milwaukee Art Museum), unveiled the painting at the elementary school in 1914. "Don't let this be the end of this beautiful tribute," he said. "Scores of American painters loved and honored your neighbor. Ask each of them to contribute one of their works to a great memorial to Vanderpoel." Soon eight artists had each given a painting. In 1915, Campbell chartered the John H. Vanderpoel Art Association "to perpetuate the name and memory of John H. receive, care for, and maintain a collection of pictures, paintings, and other works of art to be kept and exhibited at Chicago, Illinois."

Campbell is the real hero of the Vanderpoel saga--a portrait of him by Claude Buck hangs in the gallery. He devoted decades to writing letters to the artist's friends, colleagues, and students as well as to collectors and family members, inviting them to donate works. (His correspondence from 1916 through 1945 is kept in alphabetized files in a steel cabinet in a corner of the gallery.) As the collection's fame spread, most artists were happy to comply. Campbell couldn't persuade O'Keeffe, but he did get the Art Institute to give up a dozen or so works, the bulk of them plaster sculptures like Lorado Taft's model for "Standing Lincoln," which was never executed, as well as two paintings by Chicago artist Frank Wadsworth.

By the 1920s, the Vanderpoel School was overcrowded with art and started loaning works to other Beverly-area schools. The Vanderpoel Memorial Collection gained a permanent home in 1930, when the association paid for the cost of constructing a 3,000-square-foot skylit gallery at the south end of Ridge Park field house. "We got a 100-year lease at the time, at a dollar a year," says Hamper, noting that the lease was modified with the creation of the Chicago Park District in 1934; it's now year to year.

It took almost a decade to move everything out of the schools, and then it turned out that some pieces had vanished. No one seems to know what was lost, because the association didn't get around to cataloging the collection until 1939, when it was said to number about 700 works by 350 artists. Campbell stepped down as association president sometime in the mid-40s, remaining the collection's curator. He died in 1948.

The Vanderpoel Art Association has always been fussy about the works it accepts: they must have some connection to the artist. Nevertheless the gallery was filling up. "Very little was in storage," says Hamper. In 1959 a fire ravaged the gymnasium at the north end of the field house, and many works on paper--watercolors, prints, etchings, drawings--suffered smoke damage and were either thrown out or went missing. Hamper has compared past inventories, and though he couldn't name specific pieces, says, "I'm coming up about 100 short."

In the years following Campbell's death, the board became dominated by wives of prominent Beverly businessmen and civic leaders, according to the Hampers, and the association acquired a reputation for being cliquish and snooty. "Most of these women did nothing but let things lay," says Sidney Hamper. "Very little preservation was done. Paintings got old and dried out and cracked up. The acid from paper mattes leached into prints. You had hot summers with the skylight up there, and cold winters. [The collection] was in this room for more than 30 years before it was air-conditioned."

The skylight also leaked when it rained. According to Buehler, longtime board president Ruth Elsner used to "move stuff around" in the gallery so works wouldn't get damaged. She had a false ceiling installed in the 1960s. Even so, members began looking for another home to accommodate the collection. At one time Elsner wanted to move it to Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. The association also had discussions with Art Institute officials over the years. Instead, a more suitable arrangement came along that would keep the artworks in Vanderpoel's neighborhood.

Grace and Sidney Hamper have lived in Beverly since 1959, a year after Sidney earned his law degree from John Marshall. Grace, a longtime docent at the Art Institute and school volunteer, joined the board of the Vanderpoel Art Association in 1989, later becoming vice president and, in 1997, curator. After Sidney retired in 1992, he did the association's accounting and helped it regain its tax-exempt status, which had lapsed. He was asked to join the board in the mid-90s. In 1998, with help from the Art Institute, he compiled a 14-page inventory of the association's holdings. It features not only titles and artists, but also their dates of birth and death, the years a work was created and received, and its medium, subject matter, and size. "All of our work is now on for research purposes," he says. Several years ago, Hamper drove to Cincinnati to retrieve 44 unframed prints from one of Vanderpoel's granddaughters, Carol McGuigan.

He also started studying the Vanderpoel Art Association's complicated real estate documents. By the mid-1960s, the board included Eleanor Pillsbury, the wife of Beverly steel magnate Charles Pillsbury; Arthur Baer, a prominent Beverly banker; and his wife, Alice. Baer was a trustee for the Morgan Park Academy, a private school on West 111th. In 1967, says Hamper, "There was an agreement between the ladies who ran Vanderpoel and the trustees of the Morgan Park Academy to form the Beverly Park Arts Center."

By 1968 the Baers, the Pillsburys, and other association members as well as the academy had contributed funds to build an on-campus facility at 2153 W. 111th, "with the primary purpose of providing a permanent home for the art collection," says Hamper. The academy, which would administer the building, gave the primary 50-year lease to the arts center; because two-thirds of the cost had been donated by Vanderpoel board members, the arts center in turn issued a 50-year sublease to the association, at $10 a year, for use of the gallery. The academy was given use of the auditorium and would share classrooms, lounges, and the theater with the arts center.

The spacious, two-level Vanderpoel Gallery in the new Beverly Arts Center still couldn't hold the entire collection, and many works stayed at the field house. Over the years about 200 pieces have been on permanent display at both venues, with some rotated periodically. Eight or nine paintings have been loaned to museums in the last two decades, including six that went out to the exhibit "Capturing Sunlight: The Art of Tree Studios," which showed at the Chicago Cultural Center four years ago.

But that exposure didn't bring many visi-tors to either of the Vanderpoel galleries, which in recent years have been open limited hours on certain days--the field house on Wednesdays, the arts center on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Hamper admits the association could do a better job of promoting itself, though its weekly children's art classes, offered since the 1940s, remain popular.

Hamper says the shared-facility arrangement worked out "pretty well" under longtime Morgan Park Academy headmaster David Jones, who was also executive director of the Beverly Arts Center. The Vanderpoel Art Association let the school use the gallery several times a year for tests and meetings, says Grace Hamper, and the academy used a sign-up sheet to keep usage of other rooms and dates straight. But when Jones retired in 1997, the arrangement began unraveling. The academy began using the Vanderpoel Gallery more frequently to accommodate its growing classes and programs. At first the school asked, claims Sidney Hamper, but later it didn't. "The antagonism deepened...but they had control of the building. They had the keys."

The academy "was anxious to use as much of the building as could be available," says Steve McBride, who's been executive director of the Beverly Arts Center since 1999. "Both institutions had grown over the years. We needed more space for our programming, and the Morgan Park Academy needed more space for its classes....As we began to offer more classes, we had to rent outside spaces."

In spring 2001 the Beverly Arts Center broke ground on two acres of land at the southwest corner of 111th and Western, which the institution would lease from the city at $1 a year. The 42,000-square-foot complex--featuring a 410-seat theater, a gallery, a spacious atrium, and a garden courtyard as well as darkrooms, dance studios, and music and art classrooms--opened last September. The Vanderpoel Gallery wasn't included in the plans.

The Beverly Arts Center began negotiating with Morgan Park Academy to get out of its 50-year lease. Hamper wasn't worried. He recalls talking to the new headmaster, J. William Adams, about plans to remodel the building, and he believed the Vanderpoel Gallery would be able to stay on the campus.

Last fall Hamper says he "started hearing rattling that we didn't have a lease any-more," and in December he was included in a conference call with Tim Doody, the academy's attorney, and Bob Berghoff, the arts center's attorney. "They wanted to know when we were gonna move," Hamper relates. "I said, 'We have 15 years on our lease--we're not gonna move.'" In September, Hamper says, the academy started using the gallery space more and more. "What they did was make it pretty much untenable," he says. "They were in there most every day, using it for various purposes without our permission."

"None of that's true," Adams responds. He says that the academy "continued to honor [Vanderpoel's] space" up until the school had reached an agreement on the arts center's lease. He adds, "They were paying no operating expenses. We couldn't as a nonprofit keep funding them and ask our parents to pay for it. Their space was just sitting there....It was a very difficult economic situation for us."

On February 1, Hamper received a certified letter from Deborah Bertoletti, president of the Morgan Park Academy board of trustees. She wrote that because the Beverly Arts Center had abandoned the building and agreed to terminate its 1968 lease, the academy expected the Vanderpoel Art Association--as a subtenant--to also vacate the premises. Hamper says Bertoletti wanted to know "if we'd consider surrendering possession in 30 days." He replied immediately, writing that it wasn't feasible to move an art collection of such size in 30 days. He also wrote that the artworks had no place to go except into storage, which would be expensive.

On March 1, Hamper received another letter from Bertoletti. "She said she was sorry I'm having these problems and knew how difficult it was," Hamper says. "She said if I would come in and talk to them, they would help me by arranging a rental or storage agreement. In the last paragraph she referred to the Labor and Storage Lien Act," a revised Illinois statute that Hamper says allows a possessor to keep a debtor's unclaimed property.

Hamper refused to meet with academy officials, but now he was worried that the school board might try to seize the artworks. On top of that, he claims, the school's staff or students had damaged three paintings in recent years--Edward Dufner's Portrait of a Friend, Oscar Gross's Sunny Days, and William Clusmann's On the Des Plaines River--and he didn't want to take any more chances. "The risk was too great," Hamper says, "My wife, being curator, said, 'We have to get the collection out of there. We can't let those people have it.'"

("Whenever any damage was done inadvertently, we paid for the repair, at least to my knowledge," says Adams. Hamper says Adams offered to pay for minor damage to the Clusmann frame a few years ago, but then Hamper told him not to worry about it. It's still not fixed. The other two canvases--one was scraped, the other punctured--haven't been repaired either.)

Hamper learned that the Morgan Park Academy had changed the lock on the building's front door, but not on the door of the gallery inside. On Saturday, March 8, the front door was unlocked. "So I got my son and his truck, two other guys with their trucks, and we all went over there about nine o'clock," he recalls. "We took all these paintings off the walls and out of the storeroom, put plastic foam around them, wrapped them in blankets, and put them on the trucks." They hauled the 100 or so pictures and most of the sculptures to the field house gallery, laying them on tables and propping them against walls.

They had to leave some of the more unwieldy things behind: Lorado Taft's Lincoln, two grand pianos, an antique desk, display cabinets. On Wednesday, March 12, the dispute boiled over into the pages of the Daily Southtown. "Wanted: Space for art collection," ran the headline. On March 13, Hamper and his helpers returned to the academy, but now the lock to the gallery door had been changed. Hamper was able to make arrangements with the academy to allow a moving company inside a couple days later, but it cost the association $400.

The Hampers spent the next five weeks reinstalling the artworks in the field house gallery. "It was like a jigsaw puzzle, putting it up on the wall," says Sidney. There was room for about 125 pieces; the rest were stashed in storerooms. "That's not an ideal environment," says Grace. "There's a whole magnificent print collection locked up in the basement where it shouldn't be." The revamped Vanderpoel Gallery reopened in mid-April, keeping Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoon hours. (It's holding a grand reopening at the field house on Sunday, June 8, from noon to 4 PM.)

Retiree Jim Bremer was on the board of the Morgan Park Academy up until two years ago. Now he's on the board of the Vanderpoel Art Association. "It was frustrating to watch the dealings between the [two]," he says. "I was upset because I thought the Vanderpoel Association was being unfairly evicted from the building."

Doody, the academy's lawyer, stresses that the Vanderpoel Art Association had a lease with the Beverly Arts Center, not the Morgan Park Academy, and that the association was not evicted. "Mr. Hamper didn't want to participate in any discussions or negotiations," he says. Moreover, Doody points out, the assocation's lease with the arts center stated that it was subject to the terms and conditions of the lease between the academy and the arts center, and that the association's lease could be terminated if the arts center abandoned the building.

Hamper maintains that the Beverly Art Center's abandonment of its lease shouldn't extinguish the association's remaining leasehold of 15 years. "We furnished a substantial consideration to pay for the building," argues Hamper. "I've always taken the position that the Morgan Park Academy not only has a moral obligation but also a legal obligation" to pay for the value of the forfeiture, which, depending how he figures it, could be between $200,000 and $350,000. He has been consulting an attorney. Doody asserts the association isn't entitled to anything.

Hamper is grateful for the association's "excellent relationship" with the Park District, which recently designated the Ridge Park field house one of its 12 cultural centers largely because of the art collection. But some members of the Vanderpoel Art Association realize the venue may not work as the sole long-term home for the art. "I don't feel the field house shows off the value of the collection," says Blue Island graphic artist and frame shop owner Greg Lochow, who at 47 is the board's youngest member. "People say, 'How can you have a world-class art collection in a building like this?'"

Wendy Greenhouse has brought in several curators to examine the collection and offer advice. The board has also considered a permanent loan of the collection to another institution, says Sidney. "If someone said, 'We'll do the conservation, we'll take care of it, we'll make sure it's on public view,' then I think it's something we ought to seriously think about," says Grace. Sidney has had discussions with officials at the Terra Museum of American Art, which also has vast holdings of American impressionist pieces. He's also talked to curators at a local private club, but some board members were against the idea because the art wouldn't be accessible to the public.

Another option is to keep only works by local artists. "With just Chicago artists, we could more than fill this room," says Hamper. But it might be tricky to establish criteria: how long should someone have lived here to be considered a Chicago artist?

Earlier this year the Daily Southtown reported that Hamper might sell off a portion of the works, but he says his comments were misconstrued. "That's definitely not an option," he says. But he doesn't rule out deaccessioning a valuable piece--such as Frank Benson's A Woman Reading--to another nonprofit institution, as long as some of the money helped endow a conservation program.

"The collection has a tremendous amount of value beyond just the artworks," says Jim Bremer. "If you piecemeal the collection, you lose that value." He thinks the Vanderpoel Art Association ought to have its own place in Beverly that could accommodate the artworks, exhibits, and programs. "But that would force [us] to have expenses, which we currently don't have," Bremer says. "It could cost us, say, $200,000 to run a facility. We'd have to build some kind of fund-raising campaign to cover that."

Hamper has looked at a couple of buildings in Beverly, including one owned by the city, but he's noncommittal. He and Grace think they have a fine arrangement at Ridge Park, at least for now, although they admit there's some pressure from the Park District to apply for grants and get the public more involved through school tours, workshops, temporary exhibits, artists' demonstrations, and lectures--just like any other museum and park cultural center.

"They're looking for numbers, and we're committed to doing more programs--we see many opportunities for the future," says Grace. "It's a vital park, and we want to be part of that vitality here. There will always be Vanderpoel artwork in the park. Part of it might be placed elsewhere in the city, but there will always be work here."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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