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.

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.