Susanne Ghez at the Renaissance Society, 2012. Photo Chris Strong.

ON HER FIRST DAY visiting the 2009 Venice Biennale, Susanne Ghez saw the Romanian pavilion, one that, according to her, almost everyone else was ignoring, since the Eastern European country is not exactly an artistic trendsetter. She was so captivated by what she saw that she immediately sought out its curator, Alina Serban, and asked if she could bring not just the work of the three artists (Stefan Constantinescu, Andrea Faciu and Ciprian Muresan) but the entire building, a specially designed two-story structure by Bucharest’s Studio Basar, to the United States.

Ghez told Art in America, “I’m sure she thought I was crazy.” But the resulting show opened less than a year later at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, where Ghez is executive director and chief curator. “In fact, it worked out very well, and the artists couldn’t have been happier,” said Ghez, 74, who is stepping down in January.

It was the kind of bold, self-confident, against-the-grain move that has typified Ghez’s 38-year tenure and helped make the compact nonprofit contemporary art venue one of the most respected in the world. “I don’t have a PhD, I don’t have an MFA,” said Ghez, who did study art history at UC Berkeley and Columbia University. “I never had very far to fall in failure. So what is the risk?” Her friends and colleagues are quick to cite other qualities that have sustained her remarkable lon- gevity and success, which has included serving as co-curator of Documenta 11 in 2002. Among them are a keen eye and unfailing sensitivity to artists and their creations.

With the Society’s board ensuring that she didn’t have to answer to an exhibition committee, the elegant, soft-spoken Ghez has exercised a curatorial freedom that few others in the field enjoy. She has organized more than 150 exhibitions, showcasing an array of national and international artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Eva Hesse, Martin Kippenberger and Robert Smithson, as well as a cross section of top Chicago talents such as Judy Ledgerwood and Ed Paschke. While some offerings have been thematic—for example, “Visionary Images,” a 1979 look at soon-to-be stars Susan Rothenberg, Julian Schnabel and Donald Sultan—most have spotlighted single artists.

“She doesn’t meddle,” said Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall, who was the subject of a one-man show in 1998. “She believes she makes good selections, and she gives people the space to do what they want to do.”

More than anything else, Ghez is known for her ability to spot talented up-and-comers, many of whom, like Isa Genzken, Mike Kelley, Albert Oehlen, Thomas Struth, Luc Tuymans and Franz West, went on to major careers. Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, calls her a “real visionary.” Between 1990 and 2000 alone, 22 artists had their first U.S. institutional solos at the Society.

“This [risk-taking] requires a belief, a trust in your instincts and your judgment of what you think matters,” Struth said. “I think she is uncorrupted in that sense, and that’s quite rare.”

In 1973, Ghez joined the Society’s two-person staff as a half-time employee, helping with everything from book- keeping to membership. When then-director Katherine Lee stepped down that year, the still-new staffer played a key role in keeping things going, and the board promoted her to the top position in September 1974.

Right away, she realized the Society needed a niche of its own, and she opted to focus on the art of the present—her passion. In the mid-1970s, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago was still in its formative stages and the Art Institute of Chicago did little in that area. Now, the Society stands alongside those institutions as one of the city’s top three places to see contemporary art.

Ghez’s decision was hastened by the opening the same year of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art and a desire not to overlap with its more histori- cally focused mission. Though the Society operates independently of the school, it is nonetheless situat- ed in the middle of the campus and receives free space and utilities.

What makes Ghez’s accomplishments perhaps even more noteworthy is that she has done everything on a shoestring. The Society’s budget has grown from $25,000 when she started to a still-modest $1.7 million, with the main financial support coming from individuals, foundations and an annual benefit and auction. In addition, she has mounted nearly all of her shows in a former lecture hall on the fourth floor of a classroom building—a 40-by-80-foot room with a 30-foot ceiling. Despite its tight configuration and other limitations, including no freight ele- vator to serve it, the quirky space has become something of an icon. “It’s like falling through the rabbit hole,” said James Rondeau, the Art Institute’s curator of contemporary art. “You’re going into a classroom and all of sudden this magically huge space opens up for you. Its out-of-the-way magic is part of its energy, part of its charm, part of its poetry.”

Some in the field might not appreciate her bucking what have become commonly accepted muse- um practices. She largely ignores, for example, viewer demographics and attendance numbers, which drive decisions at some institutions. And in a bid to allow viewers to draw their own conclusions about what they see, she downplays wall texts and explanatory labels, which many museum professionals see as essential to making what is on view more accessible. At the same time, she doesn’t shy away from a little out a new direction and not get weighted down by her imposing legacy. Ghez’s succinct advice: “Take a risk.” Michael Darling, MCA Chicago’s chief curator, urges the search committee to consider hiring a “bold young person” who might have little administrative experience.

No matter who takes Ghez’s place, change is inevitable. “It’s about a fresh start,” Rondeau said. “So, as difficult as it is to face, it’s also potentially very enlivening and inspiring.”

KYLE MacMILLAN is a critic living in Chicago