Anish Kapoor’s ‘Cloud Gate’. © Cesar Russ Photography

Reflections on Chicago

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From ancient artefacts and Renaissance treasures to modern masterpieces and contemporary works, Chicago has something for every art-lover, writes Ian Sclater.

Art has woven itself into the fabric of Chicago. Monumental pieces dominate its downtown plazas, some of its finest civic buildings are filled with it, galleries and art centres have helped transform neighbourhoods and tourists visiting its museums are spreading the news of its growing reputation. Now a new direct flight from Scotland is bringing it all closer.

Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ is one of America’s most famous images (Art Institute of Chicago)


Most art-loving visitors make a beeline for the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the world’s powerhouse art museums, voted the best in the US in a 2013 Trip Advisor Reader Poll.

Housed in a beautiful, neo-classical building with several modern extensions, the collection is spread over two dozen themed sections spanning 5,000 years, from ancient artefacts to contemporary art.

Fans of American art will salivate over the Whistlers, O’Keeffes, Sargents, Hoppers and Rothkos (not to mention Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’, one of the nation’s most famous images, and certainly the most parodied), while Impressionism-lovers won’t know where to look first when surrounded by the largest Impressionist collection outside the Louvre, including works by Cezanne, Pissarro, Gauguin, Sisley, Seurat and Monet. Among many other highlights are Van Gogh’s ‘The Bedroom’ and Marc Chagall’s stained glass triptych ‘American Windows’.

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is one of the world’s largest contemporary art venues. It was the first museum to give a solo exhibition to Jeff Koons and Daniel Flavin (of fluorescent light fame) and staged the first Frida Kahlo exhibition in the US. It was also the first US building to be wrapped by Christo

Its collection comprises thousands of objects of post-WWII art, including works by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder, samples of late surrealism, pop art, minimalism and conceptual art as well as contemporary painting, sculpture, photography, video and installation. Each of the four floors is dedicated to a single subject, such as Chicago-themed shows and ‘post-emerging’ artists.

Opening night at the Chicago Artists Coalition

In the Western Loop neighbourhood, the former meatpacking district where art galleries are making inroads, the Chicago Artists Coalition is a great place to see new work by emerging artists in residence in the in-house studios. Opening nights are usually on the first Friday of the month and all the proceeds from art sales go to the artists.

With the slogan ‘Building a creative marketplace’, the Coalition also provides artists, writers, musicians and fashion designers with business and marketing advice, runs an incubator programme for artists and curators and has formed a Collectors’ Circle aimed at demystifying established notions of collecting.

The Coalition also stages Edition Chicago (, an art fair which focuses on affordable works by emerging and established artists.

In its landmark 1897 building, the Chicago Cultural Center, the city’s official reception venue where the Mayor has welcomed Presidents and royalty, has three spacious galleries hosting changing exhibitions, often with a Chicago theme. A symbol of the city’s ongoing commitment to art, it was the nation’s first free municipal cultural centre and hosts over 1,000 performing, visual and literary arts events a year.

The City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, is a small, ground floor space run by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events for changing exhibitions of work by Chicago artists.

Across the square from the Water Tower, the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) has its mission illustrated in the ground floor lobby by the Windows of Faith representing the five major worldwide faiths: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Reflecting the university’s Jesuit identity, it is dedicated to exploring art which illuminates spiritual issues.

The first floor Works on Paper Gallery hosts temporary exhibitions of prints, drawings and photography, mainly by Illinois artists, while the second floor is given over largely to the Martin D’Arcy Collection of European art from the 12th to 19th century, including medieval, baroque and renaissance works, largely of a religious nature and including paintings, sculptures, furniture, enamels and works in gold and silver.

Costel Iarca of Iarca Gallery

A couple of blocks down South Michigan Avenue from the Art Institute, Iarca Gallery exclusively shows a remarkable range of work by owner/artist and Romanian native Costel Iarca, including abstract paintings, figurative studies, collage and floral works.

Part of Columbia College, the Museum of Contemporary Photography has a permanent collection of over 10,000 works by 20th century American and international photographers, including Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange and Irving Penn. These are digitally projected in the Cornerstone Gallery, which is actually two monitors in the museum’s windows outside on the street corner. Inside three spaces host changing exhibitions on a variety of themes.


Chicago has over 500 works in public spaces and municipal facilities. Walking around the Loop, the central business district, you may come across (L to R.) Picasso’s untitled monumental sculpture in Daley Plaza opposite Joan Miro’s 39-foot tall ‘The Sun, the Moon and One Star’, Alexander Calder’s steel structure ‘Flamingo’ in Federal Plaza, Marc Chagall’s mosaic ‘Four Seasons’ in Chase Tower Plaza or Jean Dubuffet’s ‘Monument with Standing Beast’ at the James R. Thompson Center. In Millennium Park crowds cluster around Anish Kapoor’s bulbous, stainless steel ‘Cloud Gate’ (main picture) representing a gateway to the city, while nearby Solti Garden is populated by 26 life-size humanoid sculptures by the Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir.


The 1871 fire destroyed half the city, built as it was mainly of wood. What followed was the biggest building boom in US history, producing the world’s first highrises thanks to the introduction of metal frames and elevators.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers a range of guided tours

Volunteer guides from the Chicago Architecture Foundation lead a range of themed tours by foot, bus, boat, trolley, bicycle, L (Chicago’s elevated train line) and Segway (those battery-powered, two-wheeled, self-balancing vehicles), explaining Chicago’s amazing architectural history right up to today’s modern skyscrapers.

The pioneering architect and interior designer Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) made his name in Chicago and several of his landmark structures are open to visitors. These include his first home and studio, the de facto birthplace of an architectural revolution called the ‘Prairie style’ because the designs complemented the land around Chicago. The surrounding Oak Park district has the largest number of Wright-designed homes anywhere.

Over in Hyde Park on the edge of the University of Chicago campus is the Robie House, considered the building which sparked the revolution and one of the Architecture Institute of America’s ten most important 20th century buildings. Downtown, The Rookery, built in 1888, has a remarkable central court designed by Wright during a 1905 remodelling using goldleaf-incised Carrara marble facings.


Expo Chicago

This international exposition of contemporary and modern art last year drew 30,000 people to the Navy Pier. This year 125 galleries selected by peer review will be showing work, about 30 per cent of them from overseas. Many local galleries and art organisations have scheduled exhibitions and events around it.


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