Palette & Chisel serves art community for 120 years

office Palette & Chisel, Otto Hake
The mural in the basement office of Palette & Chisel is painted by German artist Otto Hake in the 1940s, depicting the art club's early history. (Jingnan Huo/MEDILL)

by Jingnan Huo

Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts was started in 1895 by a group of Art Institute night students who needed a place to paint during the day. Each Sunday, the students would hire a model they could draw or paint in natural daylight.

In 1921, the artists bought a run-down Italian mansion on Chicago’s Gold Coast and named it their home. The Academy remains in the mansion, thanks to the non-profit property tax exemption granted by Cook County.

Today, Palette & Chisel runs art classes while maintaining an open studio space for 60 hours a week. The open studio is prized by local artists who applaud its affordability.

“It’s the best deal in the Western Hemisphere!” said Misha Livscitz, who came to Chicago from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and became a Palette & Chisel member in 1997.

exterior, Palette & Chisel, mansion
Palette & Chisel moved into the Italian mansion in 1921. Since then, the mansion has undergone significant renovation, Executive Director William J. Ewers said. (Jingnan Huo/MEDILL)
The cost for a one-time visitor is $15 for three hours. The cost of unlimited use of the studio varies depending on whether an artist is a student of the academy ($95/year); a Chicago-area resident who isn’t taking classes at the academy ($448/year); or an artist who lives more than 100 miles outside of Chicago ($190/year).

William J. Ewers, executive director, said Palette & Chisel would not be able to offer open studio time at such affordable prices without the academy’s large membership of about 300.

“At the open studio, we have people coming from all around the world,” said Phyllis Brodny, artist member who rents a studio on the second floor of the academy. She was on the wait list for a studio for six years before becoming a tenant.

The students of the academy range from teenagers to retirees, said Ewers. “If you come to night classes, you will be able to see a more diverse crowd – young and old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian.”

Ewers said unaudited gross revenue was $2.9 million in 2016, unprecedented in the academy’s history, due to a large one-time fee paid by developers who are building a high rise on the parking lot the academy shared with another arts organization. After paying instructors, who work as contractors, and other expenses, the academy netted $2.2 million last year.

In a more normal year, Ewers said Palette & Chisel brings in gross revenue of $600,000, leaving between $20,000 and $40,000 after expenses.

“This is very much a community. One year we are sending out the catalogues and need people to help with packaging. I sent one email and 20 people showed up,” said Ewers.

Photo at top: The mural in the basement office of Palette & Chisel is painted by German artist Otto Hake in the 1940s, depicting the art club’s early history. (Jingnan Huo/MEDILL)