Appreciation: The Art Institute of Chicago

I first visited the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1960’s as a young boy. I ascended the great staircase and entered the Impressionism gallery and was absolutely blown away. Instantly I was transformed into a hardcore museum goer for all time. I’ve done a rough calculation and believe I’ve visited the AIC about 250 times. Of course I’m a long time member and frequent contributor to this storied (over 130 years) institution. At times I’ve shared more about my personal life with certain paintings that adorn these gallery walls than I have with many of my closest friends. Occasionally I sketch them (badly), write about them (somewhat better), and photograph them along with the building (best of all). View my AIC flickr gallery here. Many times I would visit alone and spend time trying to understand the art and artist and ask them to understand me. They always did.


That experience given to me by my father was a rare moment, and so I felt strongly about returning the favor to my first son, Julian. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 2, and as such processes information much differently than neuro-typicals. That’s a fancy word for people whose brain functions normally. For context, here’s the best definition of Asperger’s I’ve ever run across.

The dominance of specialized thinking and ability that prioritizes doing one task, one way, one step at a time with limited flexibility. This occurs to various degrees and results in strengths in the areas of focus (especially in the area of specialization), honesty, detail orientation, logic and original thinking. This tendency toward specialization also often results in challenges developing more generalized and complex skill sets such as conventional socialization and communication.

He was four years old when I first took him to the AIC and he had a perfect photographic memory as a result of his condition. His focus at that time was Impressionism paintings. He took ownership of my prized Big Book of French Impressionism and set out to memorize all the artists, their birth and death years and all the canvases they painted. He was a walking encyclopedia of the facts of this body of at the age of four!

In April of 1985, not long after we had moved to Chicago, we made our first AIC visit together. We entered the classic Beaux Arts building, climbed the grand staircase and immediately saw Gustave Caillebote’s Paris Street, A Rainy Day. There it was, bigger than life in the middle of the gallery. I’m a little fuzzy on this detail, but I think we both said “wow” at the same time. He too was instantly hexed with museum-going for the rest of his life.

Needless to say year after year we visited, taking in the traveling exhibits and re-connecting with our favorite masterpieces.

Fast forward to the year 2004. After a new offspring drought spanning 23 years I was blessed with a wonderful second son, Connor. Completely normal in every way, and turning into quite a negotiator. Last weekend was his first visit to the AIC. We took the same path that I took when I was a lad, and again when Julian was four. Photos from both moments were captured. The juxtaposition of these images solidifies my connection with the Art Institute.

AIC 1984 and 2009
Me with Julian in 1984 and again with Connor in 2009

The AIC is a priceless gem as well as the second largest museum in the country, thanks to the opening of new Modern Wing. You can read my impressions of this new showcase here. Year in and year out, despite challenges in my life or the mood of the world, the AIC is a constant. Always there for me, for us, whenever we need to escape the press of the day and roam the boundless spaces of creativity.

Here is a select list of exhibits that have stood out in my memory and hold a special place in my heart.

  • Edward Hopper – 2008
  • William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes – 2000
  • Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman – 1999
  • Charles Rennie Mackintosh – 1997
  • Degas: Beyond Impressionism – 1997
  • Claude Monet – 1995
  • Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist – 1995
  • John James Audubon: The Watercolors for The Birds of America – 1994
  • Magritte – 1993
  • Marc Chagall: The Jewish Theatre Murals – 1993
  • Master European Paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland – 1992
  • Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany – 1991
  • High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture – 1991
  • Andy Warhol: A Retrospective – 1989
  • John Singer Sargent – 1987

If you have never visited the AIC, do so as soon as you can. Get information from their web site here. Follow them on Twitter here. Fan them on facebook here.

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