In addition to being one of the world’s top cities for architecture fans, Chicago – like any world-class city – is also a wonderland for art lovers.
From incredible downtown public art by acknowledged masters to murals that adorn the neighborhoods, from the renowned Art Institute of Chicago to the lesser-known but no less interesting Gallery Guichard, the Windy City is packed with museums and galleries and art experiences that have something to offer every visitor.
Although I’ve long been a fan of Chicago’s museums, I went back with an eye toward compiling some of these places into a quick guide. This is by no means every art museum or experience in Chicago. There are way too many for that.
Instead, here’s a look at some experiences – some perhaps more familiar than others – for you to check out in Chicago.
Where to Stay
21c Museum Hotel
55 E. Ontario St., (312) 660-6100
This national chain combines hospitality with creativity by pairing a hotel with an art museum at its near dozen properties. While I’d checked out the museums at the Louisville and Kansas City 21c hotels, I’d never stayed in one. For this trip the River North location felt like a natural.
Galleries sprawling across two floors included a range of works in many media – painting, sculpture, printmaking, video, installation, etc. – in rooms that can also serve as event spaces. Indeed, the hotels also host arts programming. During our stay, the works were part of “This We Believe,” which explores political and national allegiances and their consequences.
The 297 rooms (including 106 suites) are modern and comfortable and many offer great views of the skyline. Plus, we were just steps from the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Arts Club of Chicago, the Driehaus Museum and other great art in a neighborhood packed with galleries.
Speaking of neighborhoods, many Chicago areas have embraced the arts, from Bridgeport – home to the Bridgeport Art Center and Zhou B Art Center – to Wicker Park and adjacent Bucktown – where you’ll find the Bloomingdale and Flat Iron Arts Buildings – to Pilsen – where you’ll find the National Museum of Mexican Art, galleries and the Chicago Arts District at 18th and Halsted, including a corridor full of murals – to the growing gallery scene in West Loop/Fulton Market and Hyde Park and Kenwood, where there is the Hyde Park Art Center and the Reva & David Logan Center for the Arts.
In addition to the public art in the neighborhoods above, downtown is loaded with world class art available to everyone on the street.
Be sure to check out the towering Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza (at Washington and Dearborn), commissioned for the public square in 1963, and the abstract Joan Miro’ work outside 77 W. Washington St. across the street.
Nearby in the Exelon/Chase Tower Plaza (at Monroe and Dearborn), you’ll find Marc Chagall’s “Four Seasons” mosaic, assembled in place in 1974 and dedicated in the artist’s presence in 1974, just a month before Alexander Calder was in Chicago to unveil his sculpture in nearby Federal Plaza (on Dearborn and Adams).
Of course, there’s Millennium Park, too, with Sir Anish Kapoor’s insanely popular people magnet, Cloud Gate, better known as “The Bean,” with its scene-bending curves and polished steel mirror effect. Adjacent is the interactive Crown Fountain with its double-towered video installation created by conceptual artist Jaume Plensa.
Also downtown is the Wabash Arts Corridor, 635 S. Wabash Ave., created in 2013 by Columbia College (which also has a small but engaging Museum of Contemporary Photography that’s worth a visit) with murals wallpapering the district that includes 19 galleries, 14 performance spaces and eight educational institutions. The area runs about from Michigan Avenue to State Street, Van Buren to Roosevelt.
Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave., (312) 443-3600
It’s hard to imagine that one of the world’s oldest and most respected art museums – the second largest in the U.S. with nearly a million square feet – needs an introduction, but here goes. Founded in 1879, the Art Institute has incredible collections in a number of areas, not least in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, but also Asian, American (“American Gothic”!) and earlier European art. The 2009 Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing houses an impressive collection of modern art.
There are changing exhibitions all the time, including the major Barbara Krueger show on view now through Jan. 24 and a really exciting show of André Kertész photographs printed on postcards that is up through Jan. 17 (hurry!!).
While you’re there, don’t miss the collection of architectural elements rescued from demolished Chicago buildings in the atrium of the original building and the Thorne Miniature Rooms in the lower level.
Chicago Architecture Center
111 E. Wacker Dr., (312) 922-3432
Having made its home for a quarter-century in the lovely old Railway Exchange Building on Michigan Avenue, the Chicago Architecture Foundation moved a couple years ago to the sleek Mies van der Rohe-designed One Illinois Center.
Here there’s more space, and a more prominent street-facing profile for the center, which houses a gift shop and two large gallery spaces – don’t miss the one upstairs with the giant models of skyscrapers from around the globe (and a focus on architect Helmut Jahn, who died last year) – and the headquarters and ticket office for the center’s many architecture tours.
Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art
756 N. Milwaukee Ave., (312) 624-9487
This museum, founded in 1991, occupies a low-key building on the near north side, and has two large galleries and a recreated room once occupied by the late Henry Darger (currently being conserved). The museum’s collection is about to get more space as the second floor will be converted to gallery space soon. At the same time, the museum facade will be opened up to better connect with the street.
For 30 years, Intuit has been showing interesting and engaging work by so-called “outsider” artists, that is diverse voices, often self-taught, who express themselves in ways outside the art “mainstream.”
When we visited there was an exciting show of works by Charles Williams (on view through April 24), including not only his comic book and superhero-inspired paintings and works on paper, but also his many pencil holders made from extruded plastic scraps he gleaned from the floor of the factory where he worked and his unusual sculptural creations, too.
Admittedly very late to the party on this one, I plan to make up for lost time and get back soon to see what’s next at Intuit.
Museum of Contemporary Art
220 E. Chicago Ave., (312) 280-2660
The MCA is among the more popular attractions downtown, in part for its stunning 1996 concrete building, which has an Instagram-ready staircase that makes a great photo from above or below.
But, of course, the art is the real star of the show at this venue, launched in 1967. Over the years it has featured the likes of Chuck Close, Robert Mapplethorpe, Vito Acconci and Jeff Koons.
Through March 27 there’s a huge Andrea Bowers show upstairs cataloguing her works across media that integrate activism, protest and advocacy. On the main floor is an intriguing show of mind- (and body-) bending paintings by young artist Christina Quarles (through Jan. 16).
Note that the MCA has a pretty great gift shop, too.
National Museum of Mexican Art
1852 W. 19th St., (312) 738-1503
Another new-to-me gem is the National Museum of Mexican Art, located in Harrison Park in Pilsen. Founded in 1982, its current building opened five years later, and has a large gallery, a couple smaller spaces and a really good shop.
The museum is beautiful, with a wide variety of works from across the ages, from ancient Mayan sculptures to 19th and 20th century works and beyond.
I especially enjoyed seeing the works by Jean Charlot, who painted Chichen Itza, including a relief that detailed the now-disappeared coloration of reliefs there.
In a more contemporary mode, there’s a double show, through Feb. 6, of works by Ester Hernandez and Shizu Saldamando, including some really fine portraiture. A series of colored pencil portraits by Saldamando will really blow your mind.
Of course, there are many, many more great museums to check out in Chicago, including
Gallery Guichard, the Smart Museum, the Chinese-American Museum, the DePaul Art Museum and Evanston’s Block Museum of Art, to name a few.
Immersive Van Gogh Chicago
108 W. Germania Pl., (844) 307-4644
There have been about a half-dozen traveling Van Gogh experience shows – including the one that spent about a half a year in Milwaukee in 2021 – and the Chicago one, called “Immersive Van Gogh,” runs through Feb. 14.
The run marks the U.S. premiere of a show that had already been seen by more than 2 million people and was customized to fit the neoclassical Germania Club space.
That’s half-a-million cubic feet of projections – often in motion, with brushstrokes appearing and disappearing – of familiar Van Gogh works, like “Starry Night,” “The Potato Eaters,” “Sunflowers” and “The Bedroom.”
To me there’s nothing quite like getting nose to nose with actual Van Gogh works, but finding yourself inside a swirl of evocative and beautiful Van Gogh is also pretty darn nice, too.
The culinary arts in Chicago definitely deserve and require their own dedicated stories, but because we all have to eat, I’ll suggest a couple restaurants here, too, so you can fuel up for your Chicago art marathon.
Shaw’s Crab House
21 E. Hubbard St., (312) 527-2722
Although it opened in 1984, Shaw’s has a look and feel of a place that’s been around at least 50 years longer. On one side, there’s a classy (but diners are casual, too) dining room and bar and on the other side is a more rockin’ oyster bar with live blues on some nights.
The food is top-notch, with scallops to die for, and the service impeccable. Also recommended: the heaping plate of fish and chips and the mac and cheese.
Shaw’s is now a Windy City institution and it’s easy to see why.
Quality Crab & Oyster Bah
1962 N. Halsted St., (773) 248-3000
Because I’m an oyster fiend, visiting Shaw’s whetted my appetite for more, so I visited its sister restaurant up toward Lincoln Park. The vibe here is much more like the oyster bar side at Shaw’s – casual, uptempo – but with food and service that’s just as good.
While Shaw’s is focused solely (sorry, I couldn’t resist) on fish and seafood, you can also get burgers here, and my dining companion raved about his.
On the lower level had been the Crab Cellar all-you-can-eat crab restaurant that has since become an all-you-can-eat lobster bar. While I didn’t get to experience that, it’s been added to my to-do list for next time.
(NOTE: Chicago has a number of COVID restriction and rules in place. You can read about them here.)
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.