Aquire, Exhibit, Educate

The more and more museums and art institutions I visit the more distinct, nuanced and thoughtful their mission statements distinguish themselves. Founded in 1879 on the rubble of the devastating Chicago fire, The Art Institute of Chicago's goal has been "to acquire and exhibit art of all kinds and to conduct programs of education." Being that this place is home to more amazing art than I could possibly relate while having one of the best ranked graduate art programs in the country, I think their mission couldn't be more alive & well from those early days.

The building itself is made up of an old and new wing- the old neo-classical style stone structure was made for and leftover from the world's fair (!!!) with bronze lions guarding the entrance and skulls etched into columns leading one to contemplatively hunker through the dark galleries, while The Modern Wing is a new, bright, airy, angular glass building, letting you breeze through the lit contemporary arena, both buildings making you feel like you are walking through a physical manifestation of art history. I hate giving you a list of what I saw and what was this or that so, given the intense nature of this place, I am going to give you my top 4 moments at The Art Institute of Chicago, moments that I now realize are all in synch with the museum's intentions...

1.  America Windows, Marc Chagall, 1977. (pictured in middle) In 1974 Marc Chagall made a huge public mosaic for the city of Chicago. He loved the school and cultural zeitgeist of the town so much he created and donated this piece to the Art Institute as a celebration of America's bicentennial. The story alone is precisely why the Chicago art environment is perfect: supporting artists who in turn want to engage with the community. I cannot describe the beauty of this piece. Stark shades of blue and colorful accents depicting American milestones and culture in the fractured pieces of glass, exquisite. It even makes an appearance, along with a lot of the museum's collection, in the legendary film Ferris Bueller's Day Off...not that I recommend seeing art this way but, the piece & the museum's cameo in this pop icon of a film really does extend to the larger context of art in Chicago. Art is a part of everyone's life in this city in some form or another whether they realize it or not!

2. Balthus. BALTHUS! How have I never heard of Balthus until now!? A controversial Polish painter, Balthus was friends with all of the great thinkers of his time Lacan, Rilke, Cocteau, Matisse etc. His paintings usually express the awkward sexuality of children, leading you in with beauty but creepily leaving you with a bad voyeuristic feeling, which lead to his slight obscurity...either way, these eerie portraits look like what Belle & Sebastian would sound like if they collaborated with David Lynch- AMAZING! (photo of Solitaire, 1943) at top

3. The Thorne Miniature Rooms. The wife of a rich American retail store founder, Mrs. James Ward Thorne, seemed to have made it her life's work to document the interior of architectural spaces in this dollhouse like form. The hand crafted replicas of intricate wood moldings! The tiny elaborate chandeliers! All at a 1inch to 1foot scale! At first I thought it was just a crazy rich lady's folly but I realized later that this kind of architectural history is somewhat important. Where else could I see the exact inner working of a Japanese tea room next to the common 30s California living room displayed in a way that makes known the geometries of living space and the lifestyle of whole eras? A strange artifact for sure but one that I think might be useful to design lovers and dollhouse playing children alike!

4. School Groups. In the design wing I came across one of my favorite pieces of art, one that I never thought I would see again, Stefan Sagmeister's Being Not Truthful Always Works Against Me. All of these tough seeming teenagers were huddled around at an apathetic distance, sort of looking at this projection of a spider web with the title phrase sewn in with elegant digital care. Having seen this work before, I knew it was motion activated so I jumped in front of it, movement becoming ensnared in the spider web picture projected on the wall. This sent the kids into a frenzy. Everybody started trying to make it move, trying to become engaged in the work. This moment, and many other moments of classes perched on folding stools in front of Pollocks and college kids discussing the (perfect!) photographs of Rineke Dijkstra, (picture at right from 1992 Beach Portraits series), is why art is important. Seeing all of these kids learning and experiencing art in all of it's forms is what this museum is for and seeing this with my own eyes almost makes me tear up a little...

Ok, so there is my sentimental journey through the Art Institute of Chicago! And, to make you understand the experience even more...they own American Gothic, Nighthawks, and more Picassos and Cornells and Richters than I have ever seen in one place! Acquiring, exhibiting and teaching- what a place!



Donna K. is a recent transplant to the Midwest where she can be found exploring culture at large through film programming, writing and her general interest in the world- both on and offline.