The Modern Wing Takes Flight

WelcomeSignThe completion of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago adds an additional 264,000 square feet of gallery space to this already impressive museum. It’s now the second largest in the country, trailing only The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had the good fortune of being at the AIC on Wednesday, May 13th giving a talk on Customer Experience, so I took advantage of the opportunity to tour the new Modern Wing. As a museum member I was allowed in on a self-guided tour ahead of the opening on May 16th.

Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the wing has it’s own entrance on Monroe street, placing it squarely in the cross hairs of the The Great Lawn, raking down from the Jay Pritzker Pavilion of Millennium Park (designed by Frank Gehry). From this view you can’t see a trace of the familiar Beaux Arts building that’s been in residence on Michigan Avenue for more than 130 years. It feels as if you may even be in a different city as you approach the glass rectangles and massive cantilevered grid roof. Perhaps Los Angeles, sans palm trees. The design has a transformative power filling one with anticipation of what’s to come.

The Foyer looking to the Monroe St. entrance
The Foyer looking to the Monroe St. entrance

The main foyer is narrow and deep like a pure white slot canyon. The offset, light oak floor planks deliver you into the space like a moving sidewalk. Your eye is drawn up to the sky pouring in through the stainless steel and glass grid ceiling. The stairs off to one side float up and into the more approachable squarish gallery boxes that array the museum’s stunning collection. A wonderful geometric compliment to the extreme main hallway.

You are however swarmed by the sameness, almost monotony of the structure; white, chrome and glass. But the space overall is workmanlike and the design is kind and courteous to the artist. Once you are inside any of the galleries, the building clears out of the way and allows the art to take center stage. It’s early days, and so, the curators still have work to do. But overall, the experience is splendid.

View of the Modern ceiling
View of the Modern ceiling

The museum’s collection is expansive and inspiring. Modigliani, Picasso, Johns, Pollack, Warhol, etc., they’re all here to be rediscovered under the eye of the Modern. It works best if  you go immediately to the third floor and wind your way down. At first you see classic galleries. As you descend you slowly begin to notice variations on how the space is shaped. One section contains 30 shadow boxes by Joseph Cornell, appropriately lined up in their own cubbies. At the north end of each floor is that constant view of Millennium Park where city goers gather and mingle among evening concerts in the warm Midwest summer nights. Taken together it’s an oasis of culture and reflection. Both are welcome in these tough times.

SolitudeOnce you are back at ground level an architecture gallery second to none (sorry Met) awaits you. Chicago is after all the home of the skyscraper, our payback for enduring the Great Fire. And so, this gallery is filled with elegant drawings and detailed models tracking the growth of structures and modern design of all types. Photography and video galleries round out the first floor. If you still have enough energy to take in more, you can exit the Modern foyer opposite of where you entered and violà, the rest of the Art Institute awaits.

On my tour I followed a senior gentleman with his daughter for a short while. He was in constant awe and I caught a sound bite as he gazed out of the third floor northern facing window. He said, “It sure is a modern world.” A fitting comment.

Chicago is a city of dreamers and doers. The Modern Wing has found a home.

Photos: Steve A Furman. To see more Modern Wing photos go here.

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