From Anish Kapoor’s iconic Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House nestled in our very own neighborhood, the city of Chicago boasts an artistic richness that is tough to top. Hailed as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper, Chicago also bears a long relationship with surrealism, a reputation that the Chicago Imagists group helped to establish throughout the late ’60s and ’70s. From Edward Gorey’s eerie etched figures to Lorado Taft’s dynamic figurative sculptures (catch a glimpse of his famed Fountain of Time just west of the Midway), it goes without saying that Chicago’s homegrown artwork is just as expressive and robust as the city that nurtured it.
And while the city certainly does not skimp on art exhibited en plein air within public parks and busy plazas, some of Chicago’s finest work, classic as well as contemporary, is hidden away behind closed (but easily accessible!) doors. While it’s easy to default to the much-adored giants of downtown’s fine art scene—namely, the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art situated across the river—the importance of breaking the inner-city bubble in favor of the smaller neighborhood-wide events and galleries cannot be overstated. It might take a bit of digging and a lot of CTA rides to cover all the ground listed below, but in the name of adventure, culture, and the last couple months left of tolerable weather (not to mention the glory of the Arts Pass, which allows U of C students free or discounted admission to multiple cultural institutions in Chicago): By all means, get out there.
Though this article intends to highlight the lesser known arts venues and events in the Chicagoland area—in short, what your O-Week “guide to living in Chicago” might gloss over or skip entirely—it’s only fair to give the big guys credit where credit is due. After all, having one of the largest Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections in the world, in addition to more than a quarter of a million individual works of art, is certainly something to brag about.
Art Institute of Chicago (AIC)
Guarded by two large bronze beasts on its South Michigan Avenue entrance, this world-famous art museum is perhaps as easily recognized by its gorgeous exterior as by the thousands of years’ worth of artistic treasures that lie within. Between rooms filled to burst with the likes of Monet, Renoir, Caillebotte, Van Gogh, and other celebs of the 19th and 20th-century art world, the AIC also features stunning collections of Japanese woodblock prints, African-American art, and the ultra-sleek, spacious Modern Wing, a 2009 extension to the museum that offers a rich collection of 20th and 21st-century European art. The Modern Wing also serves as the go-to location for many of the museum’s scheduled artist talks, parties, and other events, which are all open to the public and free to U of C students, thanks to the Arts Pass.
Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)
Located just a mile and a half north of the Art Institute is Chicago’s own contemporary art museum, which offers several floors’ worth of post-war art. Here, much more so than at the Art Institute, you will find artwork that pokes and probes at traditional understandings of art’s look and function. Current exhibitions to look out for include Phantom Limb, a brief history of modernist painting on display until October 21, and Martin Creed Plays Chicago, a year-long artist-in-residency program which showcases a handful of works from London-based conceptual-minimalist artist Martin Creed, which continues through December. Admission for U of C students is free.
National Museum of Mexican Art
Located in Pilsen, Chicago’s own Mexican-American heritage neighborhood and one of the city’s art and culture hubs, this small museum boasts a rich and colorful collection of art that doubles as a fantastic educational resource for Mexican history and culture. The permanent collection is organized chronologically from a pre-Columbian start to a Chicano resistance art finish, and is complemented by rotational exhibitions, including works by Frida Kahlo and the annual Día de los Muertos exhibit, which runs from mid-September to the end of October. The neighborhood is full of authentic Mexican cuisine, fun thrift stores and a handful of private gallery spaces, guaranteeing a fun and culturally-immersive day out regardless of the occasion!
1st, 2nd, and 3rd Fridays
1st Fridays are held at the MCA for those 21 years of age or older – geared more toward art as social engagement, this monthly event runs from 6 to 10 p.m. and offers complimentary food and live music in addition to a cash bar. Tickets go for as little as $14 if bought well in advance. For the younger and broker among us, 2nd and 3rd Fridays are perhaps a more appealing option. Doors fly open along the blocks comprising the Chicago Arts District in Pilsen from 6 to 10 p.m. on the second Friday of each month, allowing for a night of free gallery hopping and an eyeful of some of Chicago’s most remarkable and diverse contemporary art. 3rd Fridays in the Oak Park Arts District are a very similar affair, except with greater emphasis on live music and even more dining options (no complaints there).
Also crucial to keep on the radar is the River North district located, rather unsurprisingly, across the Chicago River, immediately due north of the loop. Recognized as the largest cluster of art galleries outside of Manhattan, River North has developed remarkably throughout the last couple of decades and is now one of the most lively and culturally rich destinations in the greater Chicago area. Along with hundreds of fine art galleries open to the public, there are also a handful of high-end furniture stores, bars, nightclubs, and some of the city’s best restaurants.
Whether a block from your dorm or three CTA transfers away, for a half-hour break between homework sessions or an entire Saturday out on the town, tap into your vast arsenal of artistic outlets and reap the many humanistic rewards that lie in wait.