The Art Institute of Chicago

17 May

A few years ago the Art Institute of Chicago had an ad on display at O’Hare International Airport featuring a large headline reading, “Just what you’d expect in the Midwest – Haystacks.”  The joke, of course, was that the words were superimposed over one of Monet’s famous Haystacks paintings.  I’m a sucker for people who can make fun of themselves.

The joke’s on everyone else, though.  Nestled in a city that’s known more for sports, music, and, to be perfectly honest, crime, is one of the world’s greatest art museums.  What makes it unique is that at a time when American art museums were mostly concerned with collecting ancient art and works of the Old Masters, the leaders of the Art Institute focused on the new painting styles in Europe so that now the museum has what’s widely considered to be the greatest collection of Impressionistic and Post-Impressionistic art outside of France.

The Art Institute is one of those museums with so many highlights that it’s hard to know where to begin.  Besides the Monet’s and Van Gogh’s, there’s also some of the most well-known works of American art, including Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.  Although both may be a bit like the Mona Lisa in that their cultural impact and use for parody make the actual works seem a bit anticlimactic, they’re certainly worth seeing.

Like many of the larger encyclopedic art museums, though, it’s the slightly hidden galleries that can be the most interesting to see.  The Folk Art gallery, for example, is a great way to see what popular arts & crafts were like through much of America’s history, and the basement contains outstanding photography galleries as well as the Thorne Miniature Rooms and the Touch Gallery.  All are easy to overlook, but if you’ve had enough paintings they’re a great way of exploring art.

My personal favorite is the Ando Gallery on the first floor.  It’s not so much a gallery as a place for meditation.  Completed in 1992 and designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, it’s a darkened and quiet space separated from the rest of the museum.  You enter through 16 large wooden columns that help with the feeling of being set apart from the world.  They change the objects on display in the gallery on a regular basis, but it really doesn’t matter.  I could sit there for hours on end and just let my mind wander.  It’s the perfect place to contemplate Japanese Art or whatever’s on your mind.

Eventually you’ll want to make your way to the Modern Wing, which was designed by architect Renzo Piano and completed in 2009.  The building itself is simply a great art museum.  It was clearly designed to showcase art, not the architect’s ability, and makes for an extremely pleasant experience, even if the art itself it’s everyone’s cup of tea.  I was a bit perplexed while trying to figure out how the gallery of European Modern Art was arranged – chronologically, supposedly?  By movement?  Not that it matters much.  The works of art could be arranged alphabetically by title and still be fascinating.  Even if you’re not particularly interested in modern art, the Magritte’s always tend to be amusing.  His realistic painting style combined with the surreal touches (If you can’t read French, the writing under the pipe reads “This is not a pipe.”) are thought-provoking, to say the least.

The downside of all this is the cost.  At $18 for adult admission it’s not the kind of place you can afford to stop in for an hour or two.  If you’re visiting Chicago you’re going to want to make a day of it.  I promise you won’t get bored.  If you live in the Chicago area, though, it might be worth it to splurge for a membership.  The cheapest option is $80 for one year, meaning you can go 4 times and it’s paid for itself, 2 if you bring a guest.  The benefit is that you’re relieved of the pressure of seeing everything at once.  Even I broke down and got a membership while I was there, thinking of how much I’d love to have an excuse to visit it again.  And I must say, I can’t wait.

Suggested Plan: If you want to see the real highlights and get a general idea of the timeline of art history, roughly follow the plan of the “What to See in an Hour” page on the back of the visitor’s guide with the following notes:
1) Start by going up the Grand Staircase and entering room 201.  Immediately go to your right and follow your way around the rooms on the 2nd floor, eventually going through the Impressionism rooms.
2) Go downstairs and wander through the Asian Art galleries and the galleries of Islamic and Indian Art, Ancient Art, and American Decorative Arts.  Make sure to see Chagall’s America Windows, too.
3) After this, take the time to see the American Wing
4) From here go to the Modern Wing.  Be aware that you have to go back to the first floor to get there.  Once you make it, start with the 3rd floor.

Otherwise you can simply wander through whichever galleries are most interesting to you, but do yourself a favor and make sure you’ve seen everything you want to in each of the museum’s three wings (signified by the 3 different colors in the visitor guide) before moving on to the next one.  It’ll save you a decent amount of walking.

Don’t Miss: Where to start?  Possibly the two most famous paintings in the whole museum or Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day and Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884, the latter of which will be especially familiar to fans of John Hughes’s 1986 classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Also of particular note are Mary Cassat’s The Bath and Picasso’s The Old Guitarist.  The museum boasts a splendid collection of Degas’s works, as well, including some of his famous ballet paintings.  After taking dance lessons for 12 years I’ll always be a bit partial to those.

Dining: The museum has two restaurants, the Garden Cafe, a cafeteria-style eatery on the lower level, and Terzo Piano, a rather expensive Italian restaurant located in the modern wing.  To be perfectly honest the full-service option was a bit out of my price range, so I stuck with the Garden Cafe instead.  For a cafeteria the food was actually pretty good, with brick-oven fired pizzas and freshly made deli sandwiches. Be aware that it’s best to eat at off-peak hours, as the stations aren’t always staffed as well as they should be.  It can be a bit hard to find, too – you have to take the stairs next to the old Stock Exchange Trading Room.

There’s also a small cafe, Caffè Moderno, located on the second floor of the Modern Wing.  They serve some soups and sandwiches, but the seating isn’t really conducive to a full meal.  It’s a great place to stop in the afternoon for a coffee (which was good), snack (the red velvet cupcakes were amazing), or even a beer (they feature local breweries).

Audio Guide: With admission already being so much, odds are you’re not going to want to pay $5 extra to listen to an audio guide, but if you’re really curious it might be worth it.  The benefit is that it forces you to sit and really look at some of the highlights of the collection, although I should warn you that the commentary can be rather dry at times.  The nice part is that each guide has all 3 tours on it – the standard tour, the Director’s Tour, and the Children’s Tour.  When in doubt, listen to the children’s tour.  There’s actually some interesting facts and interviews on there and one very adorable bit about a Korean ewer shaped like a duck.

Other Tips:

  • Before going to the Art Institute, check out their website, especially the Orientation Videos.
  • You can also browse through the collection of Self Guides published on the website.  They’re very well-done lists of six works pertaining to a certain theme.  Odds are you’ll find an interesting topic among them to enhance your visit, just be aware that they need to be printed out before you get to the museum.
  • If you’re particularly interested in the museum’s collection of Impressionist art, you can get an iPhone app on the subject.  Unfortunately it costs $3.99, so it’s probably something more for true fans.
  • On a budget?  As of June 1, 2011 the first and second Wednesday of every month will feature free admission.  It’s a great move on the museum’s part, but be aware that “free days” at museums can get a bit crowded
  • First and foremost, look at a visitor guide when you arrive and see when the gallery closures are for the day.  If there’s something you really want to see, plan accordingly.
  • Be aware that food and drinks are not allowed anywhere in the museum, including the coat check, so don’t do what I did and buy a new bottle of juice right before going in.
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