Chicago's Art World, Then And Now

Art Institute of Chicago

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The Art Institute of Chicago

The history of the Chicago art world begins in earnest with the storied Art Institute of Chicago, a place of refinement and cultural uplift in a city that in the nineteenth century was defined by cutthroat capitalism and great personal and societal aspirations. The Metropolis of the West was a city of industry, belching smoke into the prairie sky. It was then, as now, a transportation hub, with hulking railroads connecting the East with the American frontier. The city was also, in Carl Sandburg’s unforgettable phrase “Hog Butcher to the World”—a place of gritty, dirty business. But through the haze, a handful of great men and women saw their duty with clear eyes: to establish a cultural mecca, a place for literature and art to flourish.

The Art Institute of Chicago has its roots in the Chicago Academy of Design, an art school that offered drawing classes to its members. The Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, an offshoot group, began to comprehend the mission differently. Chicago needed not only places for art instruction to cultivate the talents of would-be artists, but also collections and exhibitions to provide culture to its ever-growing populace. When the Academy of Fine Arts was re-chartered as the Art Institute of Chicago in 1882, the ultimate goal came into focus: a school for burgeoning artists as well as a museum for public instruction and example.

In those days, the Art Institute relied on the wealthiest Chicagoans to lend their private art collections for exhibition. Bit by bit, the Art Institute introduced a complementary program of concerts and a public lecture series. Twice a week, the public enjoyed free admission, which boosted its numbers. At last the Art Institute of Chicago found its footing and became the preeminent venue for the display of fine arts in the city. Meanwhile, the School of the Art Institute had grown into the largest art school in the world with programs in visual arts, writing, and theater.

Chicago is a place in pursuit of the modern. This is especially true in the fine arts, although at times the historical trajectory might not have suggested it. Certainly in its earliest days, the Art Institute supported a classic repertoire, looking to established forms of art that lent the city a civilized air—one need only to take a look up at the building’s friezes to see great names from history there engraved. But it is important to note that Chicago has always been a city with the future on its mind. For instance, one of the Art Institute’s most important benefactresses, Bertha Palmer, was an erudite and sophisticated woman who sought out contemporary artworks, and the museum’s massive collection of French Impressionism is a direct result of her pioneering efforts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Another example, the Armory Show, the nation’s first large-scale exhibition of avant-garde modern art, arrived at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1913 (the Armory Show also appeared in New York and Boston). While the consternation over the inscrutability of the abstract artwork at the Armory Show is legendary—including the School of the Art Institute’s burning of the French painter Henri Matisse’s works in effigy—we must temper such an opinion of Chicago’s provincialism. The Art Institute was the only public museum venue for the Armory, demonstrating the open-minded leadership of the museum. By contrast, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had declined to host this radical show. The number of people who flooded into the Art Institute to see the Armory Show far outstripped its viewership in any other city—200,000 viewers, maybe more. The influence of the Armory Show is seen in Chicago’s modern art renaissance in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.

Nowadays, the Art Institute of Chicago keeps alive the spirit of forward-thinking experimentation with the public always present in mind. The popular website TripAdvisor named it the top museum in the world based on visitors’ rankings. A recently built Modern Wing (2009) by the architect Renzo Piano provides a fittingly sleek structure for the twentieth- and twenty-first century artwork housed therein, and the 2015 Edlis|Neeson bequest crucially expanded the museum’s contemporary holdings. More than a hundred years ago, the Art Institute served to remedy the social ills resulting from unchecked industrialism. In our own moment, it is host to millions of visitors from around the globe who have arrived to experience the uniquely Chicagoan brand of cultural enrichment.