Chicago’s Other Institutions

Beyond the ubiquitous Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago offers a treasure trove of lesser known cultural venues.


Auburndale Site #4, Highland Park, MI, 2006, Object Orange
Archival inkjet print, Collection: the Museum of Contemporary Photography

We Chicagoans understand. You visitors get to Chicago, what, two or three times a decade, each time for a few days on business or pleasure, get a good sense of the Loop and Michigan Avenue, enjoy the lakefront, the architecture, check out some fine restaurants, try to see the 2005 World Champion Chicago White Sox, etc. And because you’re interested in modern and contemporary art you develop a familiarity with Chicago’s two major art museums, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art. You’re like a lot of Chicagoans in that last matter, for most of our citizens the AIC and the MCA pretty much satisfies their art consumption needs. The Art Institute is Chicago’s cultural behemoth, a full-service museum in the heart of downtown, and the MCA is north of the river, off N. Michigan Avenue, and caters to the crowd that’s more tuned in to contemporary art. Between the two museums about 1.7 million people–Chicagoans and visitors–experience Chicago’s best-known art venues.

But Chicagoans very interested in modern and contemporary art regularly hit a lot of other art places as well, and here’s an annotated list of six museums, institutions, and art spaces (not including commercial art galleries) that you might want to check out on your next visit (maybe this Fall for Expo Chicago or SOFA Chicago?) to the most exciting, dynamic, cultured, vibrant, and happening city–on Lake Michigan.

Located in a handsome aerie up on the top floor of a pretty nondescript building on the campus of the University of Chicago, The Renaissance Society ( has been a major art space in Chicago since 1915. But change is a-coming–Susanne Ghez, its Director for the last 40 years and curator/organizer of some 150 exhibitions there is retiring in January 2013. Her signature style has been a savvy eye for the new (among artists who had significant early one-person exhibitions there are Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons, Kara Walker, Yutaka Sone, Isa Genzken, Jeff Wall, Luc Tuymans, Hirsch Perlman, etc., and she’s also shown Chicagoans Jim Lutes, Kerry James Marshall, Vera Klement, Julia Fish, Ed Paschke and many more) and, with Hamza Walker, her colleague of the past decade, she’s shown a very fine eye for installation. Check out one of Ghez’s final exhibitions this fall, Danh Vo, who will also be showing simultaneously at the AIC. Known locally as “The Ren” and a bit off the beaten track in Hyde Park, pretty far on the South Side, this has been the most admired specialized exhibition venue for contemporary art in Chicago for at least a generation.

Also in Hyde Park and affiliated with the University of Chicago is the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art ( The Smart is a small and choice art museum, in a bright and boxy 1974 building by Edward Larrabee Barnes, with a sprinkling of Old Masters (Cambiaso, Pordenone, Steen, Algardi) some great moderns (works by Rodin, Rothko, Bearden, Metzinger, Dove, and Sylvia Sleigh’s famous early feminist painting Turkish Bath is there, as is the Frank Lloyd Wright designed dining table and chairs from his nearby 1908 Robie House, etc.) and a commitment to contemporary art, including Chicago Imagists such as Roger Brown and Jim Nutt, and others such as Kerry James Marshall, H. C. Westermann, and Henry Darger. Directed by Anthony Hirschel since 2005, The Smart hosts, well, smart exhibitions, the kind that might be too narrow for the AIC, but are perfect for a small pocket museum not dependent on huge crowds, and the exhibitions are often coordinated with the U of C’s Art History department. This fall it’s prints, prints, and more prints, with “Renewal and Revision: Japanese Prints of the 1950s and 60s” and “Awash in Color: French and Japanese Prints,” the latter largely drawn from the Smart’s permanent collections. There’s also a small sculpture garden on site there, with works by Richard Hunt, Scott Burton, Louise Nevelson, Jene Highstein, and Arnaldo Pomodoro.

The Arts Club of Chicago ( is a few blocks south of the MCA, and is a curious blend of a private club–founded in 1916–with a public exhibition space. You’re not allowed upstairs (and those famous cantilevered stairs were designed by Mies van der Rohe) unless you’re a member, so you won’t have access to their permanent collection of the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Picabia, Goncharova, Braque, and more recent works by Alex Katz, Peter Doig, and Sigmar Polke. But it’s the large downstairs exhibition space in this attractive John Vinci designed building, home of the Arts Club since 1997, that draws in the public, and it’s almost always worth visiting. Kathy Cottong stepped down as Director in 2011 after 17 years at the helm, and consistently brought intriguing shows to Chicago (in her last four years on the job, for example, her exhibitions included shows by George Grosz, Andy Warhol, Chris Ofili, Maya Lin, Elizabeth Murray, David Hockney, John Baldessari, and more). Jane Mileaf took over in January 2012, and her programming starts to kick in this fall with an exhibition of the work of London-based artist Janice Kerbel. Just steps from the Magnificent Mile, the Arts Club is one of those tranquil places just awash with dignity–a real oasis of culture.

The Museum of Contemporary Photography ( is several blocks south of the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, and is part of Columbia College. While it is a museum with a permanent collection of over 12,000 photographs, few of these are regularly on display, the MOCP is a mostly a study center and kunsthalle driven by its temporary exhibitions. While sometimes these are monographic, including surveys in recent years of Guy Tillim, Robert Heinecken, John Baldessari, Beate Gutschow and this fall’s project exhibition by Jan Tichy, more notable in recent years have been a series of thoughtful theme exhibitions, where the curators (recently, Rod Slemmons, Karen Irvine, and current MOCP Director Natasha Egan) cull together a group of photographers on a specific subject (for example, “La Frontera: The Cultural Impact of Mexican Migration,” “Crime Unseen,” “Survival Techniques: Narratives of Resistance,” and, through September 30, “Peripheral Views: States of America”) bringing scores of photographers from around the world to Chicago.

Across the street from the north end of Millennium Park, a few blocks north of the AIC, the Chicago Cultural Center ( is a multi-arts center as well known for its music concerts as for its art exhibitions. Housed since the 1970s in the former Chicago Public Library, the Cultural Center has three smallish gallery spaces on the first floor and two large exhibition spaces on the fourth floor, the Exhibition Hall and the Yates Gallery, the latter named for arts advocate Congressman Sidney Yates. Besides the great beauty of the Beaux-Arts building, which include mosaics and ceiling domes by Tiffany and Studio, the Cultural Center has consistently pursued a high quality and diverse arts programming, and surveys local, national, and international art. While Rahm Emanuel’s new administration in City Hall will probably mean some changes for the Cultural Center, it’s keeping on at present, and this fall will survey the local art collaborative Industry of the Ordinary.

The youngest of these crucial “other” spaces in Chicago is the Sullivan Galleries ( at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Founded during a reorganization of SAIC spaces in 2008, the Sullivan Galleries occupy some 32,000 square feet of exhibition space, making it the largest single venue for temporary art exhibitions in downtown Chicago. Directed by Mary Jane Jacob, it’s a remarkable place, comprising the entire seventh floor of Louis Sullivan’s former Carson Pirie Scott building of 1904. Some of the programming here is SAIC specific, BFA and MFA exhibitions, faculty shows, etc., and the Sullivan Galleries has also generated exhibitions by the likes of Wolfgang Laib and Ray Yoshida, and intriguing group shows on subjects such as Decadence in Contemporary Art, Social Practice in Chicago, the Artist’s Studio, and this fall will host “Roger Brown: This Boy’s Own Story” and “The Great Refusal: Taking on New Queer Aesthetics.” Hard to find on your first visit (street signage for a seventh-floor gallery in the heart of the Loop is difficult), it has already made a difference here and is rife with further potential.

There are more crucial art venues in Chicago than these six (or eight, if we include the AIC and the MCA), of course, and a year doesn’t go by that I don’t have occasion to visit the Hyde Park Art Center, the Elmhurst Art Museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the Block Museum at Northwestern University, Intuit, the Evanston Art Center, the DePaul Art Museum, the Loyola University Museum of Art, threewalls, the Illinois State Museum at the Thompson Center, the Gahlberg Gallery at the College of DuPage, Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the South Side Community Art Center, and more. While all this sounds as if you can’t spit in Chicago without hitting an exhibition venue, it’s not quite that overwhelming, and these are geographically clustered enough to make them accessible, and in every case in interesting neighborhoods that will broaden your sense of the breadth of Chicago. Go forth, and enjoy!

SOURCEjames yood
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Robin Dluzen
James Yood teaches modern and contemporary art history and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he also directs its New Arts Journalism program. Regional correspondent and art critic for Artforum, he has also written regularly for Art and Auction, teme celeste, GLASS magazine and