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An Art Lover’s Guide to Chicago

Explore the Windy City as an arts mecca.

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Chicago has earned its place as cultural kingpin—artistic offerings here are not only top-tier, but they come widely varied in medium. Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Second City are the utmost in performing arts, while galleries and universities are filled with visual art legends and up-and-comers alike—and one needs only glance at the skyline to recognize the architectural impact.

Today’s visitors to the Windy City behold what came to be after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871—the devastation of nine square kilometres downtown left 100,000 inhabitants homeless. It was modern advances in steel manufacturing harnessed by the determination of architects like Louis Sullivan—not to mention his best-known mentee Frank Lloyd Wright—that Chicago rose from the ashes of the 19th century. Since then, the streets have become an unparalleled architectural gallery.

The Chicago Architecture Center (CAC), formerly the Chicago Architecture Foundation, opened a new custom-designed exhibition space in August that encompasses a design studio, lecture hall, and gift shop. Offering 85 architecture tours, including the popular river cruise, the CAC features the Drake Family Skyscraper Gallery with Building Tall, an exhibit on the creation of the tallest structures in the world and the Chicago Gallery, featuring an expanded interactive model of the city’s skyline, with details on 4,000 notable buildings.

Millennium Park’s 2004 debut was a welcome green space addition to the city’s Loop district. Architect Frank Gehry designed the eye-catching stainless-steel Pritzker Pavilion and curvaceous BP Bridge, steps from what is likely the city’s most Instagrammed sculpture: Cloud Gate. Designed by British artist Sir Anish Kapoor, this reflective creation provides distinctive views of the skyline and is one of 100 sculptures to be found downtown, including noteworthy pieces by Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, and Joan Miró.

Chicago has earned its place as cultural kingpin—artistic offerings here are not only top-tier, but they come widely varied in medium.

Ferris Bueller and his pals were right to while away part of their day off in the venerable Art Institute of Chicago. Founded in 1879,  the school and museum played a key role in preservation and education in the wake of the Great Fire. Today, the gallery’s impressive collection encompasses items from the Holy Roman Empire to 21st century contemporary art, and historic must-sees of American art history like American Gothic by Grant Wood, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, Target by Jasper Johns, Mao by Andy Warhol, and Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Street art has also found a place in Chicago in the Wabash Arts Corridor. Debuting in the downtown core in 2013, this “living urban canvas” is an initiative of the Columbia College Chicago encompassing 19 galleries, 14 performance spaces, eight educational institutions, five hotels and 40 restaurants. Check out the Big Walls project, which added 18 murals in 2016 to the brick and concrete expanses found in the corridor, showcasing Chicago-based and international artists alike in South Loop district, joining those like the hard-to-miss Jacob Watts’ Moose Bubblegum Bubble, winner of a Wabash Arts Corridor competition.

Within the hallowed halls of the University of Chicago is the Smart Museum of Art. Named for brothers David and Alfred Smart, publishers of such magazines as Esquire, what began as a private sculpture collection that included pieces by Auguste Rodin has grown into a public space with more than 15,000 objects including. There are European masters’ paintings, Chinese artworks, and contemporary pieces from the likes of Kerry James Marshall..

For those who appreciate the art of the word, the American Writers Museum is a worthy discovery. Diving into America’s history of essayists, novelists, and poets, the museum champions the impact of writers like Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, and William Faulkner. Interactive exhibits like Story of the Day invite visitors to use vintage typewriters to contribute to a collective story begun anew each morning from a line of classic American literature.

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December 4, 2018