Lester and Betty Guttman leave a legacy at the Smart Museum.
Over a half‑century marriage and a quarter century of working together at Argonne National Laboratory, Lester and Betty, SB’43, Guttman built a collection of 830 photographic works by 414 artists. After Lester died in 2006 and Betty in 2014, the couple left the collection to the Smart Museum of Art, where it provides “an understanding of the history of photography and its various episodes in an informed way that has not been possible until now,” says UChicago art historian Joel Snyder, SB’61.
Betty Seligman, the only child of an Indiana‑born mother and German immigrant father, met Minneapolis native Lester Guttman at a party at the University. She had transferred to UChicago after growing bored with the traditional ways of her private women’s college in Missouri, where she had pursued her love of horseback riding.
Lester had studied chemistry at the University of Minnesota and then the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his PhD and began his career as a research assistant. In 1946 he joined the James Franck Institute, formerly known as the Institute for the Study of Metals, writing papers on the grain structure of metals, superconductivity, and superfluidity. After a Guggenheim Fellowship and a stint at General Electric Research Laboratory, he ended up at Argonne in 1960.
Betty and Lester worked together at the national lab—he as a senior scientist and editor of the Journal of Applied Physics, she as a technical librarian—retiring in 1986 and 1991, respectively. Married for 50 years, the couple had two daughters and shared many interests, including art, literature, theater, and music. In addition to photography, they also collected orchids and mushrooms in their midrise condo in Kenwood.
Leaving the photography to the Smart through a bequest in their will, the Guttmans gifted their neighborhood museum with a varied and informative collection. “Rather than seeking to collect, for example, all the works of a specific artist, period, or place, or the best known or most precious, the Guttmans’ choices grew out of their inquisitiveness and wide‑ranging interests in the world,” write professor of visual arts Laura Letinsky and Smart Museum curator Jessica Moss in an exhibit catalog. “It is a thoroughly eclectic and a fantastically personal gathering of images expressive of the Guttmans’ full, rich lives.”
The collection’s historical and conceptual breadth and depth “will be a powerful resource for the object‑driven inquiry that is at the heart of our work at the Smart Museum,” says interim director Bill Michel, AB’92, MBA’08. The Guttmans’ photographs are on view in a Smart exhibit, There Was a Whole Collection Made: Photography from Lester and Betty Guttman, through December 30.