Iconic Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago
Published on April 12, 2022
Our new monthly series Iconic Chicago looks at some of the most famous locations in our city. We’ll explore the history of these places and why they have earned the love of residents and tourists alike. In honor of World Art Day on April 15, we kick off Iconic Chicago with one of the city’s most venerable institutions, the Art Institute of Chicago
As of 2021, the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) is the 10th largest art museum in the world[JMM1] and the second-largest in the United States, behind only New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Every year, 1.5 million people pass through its doors to interact with approximately 300,000 works of art from around the world.
The AIC started in 1866 as a school called the Chicago Academy of Design. But 13 years later, it was struggling financially and its trustees left to form a new school, the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which also included a museum. In 1882, the organization changed its name to the Art Institute of Chicago and over the next decade outgrew a few locations along Michigan Avenue. The Institute eventually worked with city leadership to get a new home in Grant Park at the intersection of Adams Street and Michigan Avenue.
The stately building was designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, the same Boston architecture firm who designed Chicago’s first public library. That library became the Chicago Cultural Center and is located just a few blocks north of the Art Institute. For the Art Institute, the architects went with a classical Beaux-Arts approach, incorporating Corinthian columns, a triangular pediment, and replicas of friezes from the Parthenon. It was completed just in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition, where it was used to host various assemblies. When the fair ended, the Institute took possession of the building, and it had its official opening as the Art Institute on Dec. 8, 1893.
Since May 1894, the front entrance has been flanked by two African lions. Sculpted in bronze by Edward Kemeys, the lions were a gift from Florence Field, the widow of Henry Field, who was an early trustee of the museum. Although they don’t have names, the lions do have distinct personalities. The northern one is said to be “on the prowl” and the one to the south is “in an attitude of defiance.” Yet for all their fierceness and regal bearing, they’re not above getting outfitted with wreaths for the holidays or wearing the colors of our sports teams during the playoffs. They even have their own Twitter account!
A most impressive collection
Although the Art Institute contains works of numerous disciplines spanning thousands of years, the museum is perhaps best known for its collections of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and American art. The Arts of the Americas department includes such celebrated paintings as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV, Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath and Winslow Homer’s The Herring Net.
The Impressionism collection, considered to be one of the finest outside of France, contains masterpieces by Vincent van Gogh (The Bedroom, Self-Portrait, The Poet’s Garden), Paul Cezanne (The Basket of Apples, The Vase of Tulips), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Two Sisters, Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise), Claude Monet (his Stacks of Wheat and Water Lilies series), Gustave Caillebotte (Paris Street; Rainy Day) and Georges Seurat (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte).
Other must-see works include Pablo Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, Marc Chagall’s America Windows, Agnes F. Northrop’s Hartwell Memorial Window. In addition, visitors can also spend time in galleries devoted to sculpture, decorative arts, architecture, masks, photography, armor, textiles and mosaics.
The AIC has never lost sight of its original mission to educate future generations of artists. Founded simultaneously with the museum and accredited in 1936, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the most prestigious and influential art schools in the country. It offers courses not just in traditional artistic disciplines, but also liberal arts, journalism, film, performance, sound and historic preservation.
The SAIC’s most famous alumni includes such names as Georgia O’Keeffe, Grant Wood, Jeff Koons, fashion designer Halston, film director Vincente Minnelli, author David Sedaris and political cartoonist Herblock. Walt Disney, Orson Welles and Hugh Hefner are among those who have taken classes at the school.
An space for every art
The museum’s growth has mirrored the city’s. Expansion started almost immediately after the building’s construction, with the arrival of Fullerton Hall in 1898. In total, nine buildings have since been added to create more gallery and research space, with the most recent being Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing. It opened in 2009, complete with a bridge that offers direct access to the Institute from Millennium Park. The north and south gardens were donated in the 1960s.
It’s easy to work up an appetite after hours of walking around the museum. AIC has a few different dining options, including the Museum Café, Balcony Café, and Terzo Piano. The Museum Café, is perfect for families with great food options for kids. Balcony Café is convenient and quick, if you’re simply looking for a pick-me-up. And plan ahead if you’d like to try Terzo Piano. Located in the Modern Wing, Terzo Piano offers incredible views of the lake and the city paired with upscale organic, farm-sourced Mediterranean dishes. The restaurants have been closed since the pandemic, so be sure to check beforehand.
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