A quick guide to Chicago Cultural Institutions

This piece will run in the April 16th, 2009 edition of the Belgian art magazine (H)Art. Check out their new website here.

Series Description:

This series of five articles will be an introduction to Chicago, Illinois USA and it’s local critical cultural experimentation, written from the perspective of a magazine editor and curator committed to navigating the city. Look for two more articles in 2009: In the next article I will deal with cultural media, criticism and journalism and the final article in this five part series will focus on individual artists working alone or without a consistent group identity.


Critical Culture in Chicago – Article #3: Cultural Institutions
by Daniel Tucker

This article, the third in my five part series, will introduce international readers to the cultural institutions both big and small, old and new existing presently in Chicago. The cultural institutional landscape here is vast and diverse, rich and imbued with history. For the purposes of this introduction, I will focus on the venues that host contemporary visual art with special nods to the spaces that are sympathetic towards work with socially engaged content, that function to build community, or that present work in various disciplinary forms all at once.


If you are interested in large scale institutions that have the capacity to execute large and expensive exhibitions and projects, there are only a few options in town. The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) was established in 1871 following the great Chicago fire that killed hundreds of people and decimated nearly 4 square miles of the still young city which was settled first by non-natives in the 1770s. While the Art Institute is known for its massive collection of Impressionists and post-Impressionists from Europe, the collections also include a substantial amount of art from the U.S. and Asia andpre-Colombian meso-America. The museum is drawing closer every day to the opening of the new Modern Wing designed by Renzo Piano, the first major expansion since the 1988 expansion to incorporate its growing contemporary collection. The contemporary visual art and performance presented by the museum is significant but conservative, confirming the role of this institution as the arbiter of culture of the past. To give a sense of their scale and budget, the president of theAIC made $371,985 in 2007 and the overall budget reported to the government for that year was $187,779,151.

Located just 1.4 miles down the street from the AIC is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), its closest compliment in the city. Opened in 1967, the MCA moved to its current location in 1996, which significantly expanded the potential to execute large projects and educational programs, and to show the collection of art made after 1945 that it began collecting in 1974. The director of theMCA made $450,000 in 2007 (one of the highest paid museum directors in the world, who has since been replaced) and the overall budget reported to the government for that year was $14,670,821. The museum has struggled to differentiate itself and stand out, yet has opted to constantly reference and take cues from other global centers for art selling and collection. This tension has left theMCA generally stifled and uncreative, without a clear mission or objective in terms of the kind of work it shows, its relationship to the city or region, or its relationship to the art market. Over the years many attempts have been made to show local artists, including a series of solo shows in 1994 and the establishment of a tiny yet prominent gallery for “emerging artists” in 2002. The institution received significant criticism and a partial boycott in 1989 when they partnered with the local government’s Department of Cultural Affairs and theAIC to mount “The Chicago Show” which ended up selecting only 6 out of 90 artists of color, despite the exhibitions goal of celebrating the diversity of the city. The racially diverse selection jury was a “blind jury” and argues that their decisions were not informed by race and that only 6 percent of the original 1,417 applicants were minority artists. TheMCA published an apology in the exhibition catalog and also featured an additional profile of 25 artists of color. Regardless of the afterthought, many artists from the catalog and exhibition worked to organize a counter exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center (though the exhibit boycott did not occur).

Along the same artery of Michigan Avenue is the Chicago Cultural Center – a nerve center of public culture in the city –  the largest 100% free gallery and performance venue in the city. It is also home to offices for the local government’s Department of Cultural Affairs, headed up by Lois Weisberg who founded the Cultural Center in 1991 in the renovated building formerly used as the main public library. The building is home to numerous performance venues, large public sitting and meeting rooms, an archive of local literary culture, the main public tourism office, several art galleries and an arts education project for local teenagers called Gallery 37 is located across the street. While the budget for producing exhibitions and events is tiny compared to the Museums across the street, this venue feels more vibrant due to the multiple uses that bump against one another on a daily basis in its halls. For years they were home to the Museum of Broadcast Communications which is slowly moving into its new location less than eight blocks away.

Other midsized exhibition venues for contemporary art include National Museum of Mexican Art, National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, Spertus Museum, Experimental Station, Experimental Sound Studio, Hyde Park Art Center, ThreeWalls, Southside Community Arts Center, Intuit Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art , Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art , State of Illinois Museum Chicago Art Gallery, Beverly Art Center, and Zhao B Center.

Festivals that bring art to town or highlight what is happening here for art tourists include ART Chicago , Next Art Fair, Versionfest , SOFA , Chicago Humanities Festival , Chicago Calling , and Around the Coyote .

BFA/MFA Factory

The city has taken a similar trajectory as many places, in that it has become home to a number of competing art degree programs. In addition to boasting strong lecture series and public programs, many of these schools are also home to high caliber exhibition venues for students, local as well as non-local visiting artists. There are only a few private art schools that are unattached to universities. One is Columbia College, which boasts several exhibition venues including the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the remarkable Center for Book and Paper Arts. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is the other prominent private art school, which has a strong history and dedication to socially engaged art. The School is associated directly with theAIC museum and has a number of exhibition venues located downtown, including the Rhymer and Sullivan Galleries and their own Joan Flasch Artist Books collection. One of the best features of this institution is its association with the Video Data Bank and Gene Siskel Film Center, with experimental and foreign videos and films (often accompanied by discussions and lectures) that are a great compliment to the other main venues for film and video in town like Facets Cinematheque and Chicago Filmmakers on the north side, a half dozen informal microcinemas, numerous festivals, and the DOC Films programs at the University of Chicago on the south side.

Among the private universities featuring art programs, the University of Chicago brings a small MFA program, the incredibly consistent and smart Renaissance Society and the fantastic mid sized Smart Museum . Northwestern University has a similar sized graduate program in “Art Theory and Practice” and also has its own Block Museum. The two Jesuit Catholic universities Loyola and DePaul both have small museums. University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) is by far the best public (therefor the most affordable) program for art study. The school is also home to two of the city’s most interesting small venues for exhibition, performance and lecture. One is the Gallery400, which hosts student exhibitions as well as commissioned exhibitions called “At the Edge.” The other UIC based museum is Jane Addams Hull House Museum which is actually a history museum about social work and community organizing around poverty and human rights that occured at the turn of the 19th century. But the Hull House Museum has taken a turn in recent years to become not just a history museum but an embodiment of that history through contemporary culture and action. The place is a hub for all sorts of arts and culture as well as debates, activist meetings and conferences – serving as a reminder that sometimes the best way for the lines between art and life to blur is to actually allow them to be in the same room together.

Other cultural institutions that have their own focuses but occasionally mount exhibitions as demonstrations of different ways of seeing or thinking include: Chicago History Museum , Dusable Museum of African American History, Newberry Library , Chinese American Museum of Chicago (temporarily closed), Museum of Holography, the Little Black Pearl arts education facility, McCormick Freedom Museum , Cervantes Institute , Oriental Institute ,Smith Museum of Stained Glass , the Nature Museum , Goethe Institute, Pullman Porter Museum , the Museum of Science and Industry, and the International Museum of Surgical Science who’s “Anatomy in the Gallery” project brings contemporary art about the body into their unique facility.

Progressive Institutions?

While my series for this publication is focused on so-called “critical culture” in Chicago, you’ll easily note that most of the institutions (like most cultural institutions, universities and museums) I have listed here don’t necessarily have a reflexive dynamic that could produce what we generally understand to be institutional critique from within (self critique). They certainly have the capacity to present the work of artists who critique institutions as their subject matter, and they have the capacity to more generally present culture and ideas that are addressing social and political concerns in their content explicitly. This is what they do already. They show art about war, about oppression, about cultural amnesia, about revolution, and about democracy. And in fact, they are showing more and more work about challenging social and political subjects. But does that constitute a progressive institution?

I would suggest that one way that they could become more “progressive” beyond the relevant content of the art work would be to self-critically address their internal mechanics. These institutions rely on the steady stream of aspiring artists and young people willing to be subjected to labor insecurity out of necessity or of desire to work in the field within which they hope to some day professionally achieve success. This is combined with the caterers, guards, and janitors that may or may not have a vested interest in the field of art, but who have come to rely on its institutions through their precarious and often subcontracted labor to reproduce their lives. So how could cultural institutions find a balance between presenting ideas and embodying ideas through focusing on the intersections of art and labor?

In this time of economic depression, we cannot only speak of hypothetical ways of reforming the existing institutions. We must also think of life after these institutions, for we will undoubtedly see some of them fall, some of them further contract, and likely all of them layoff workers and  compromise their missions and goals in order to stay afloat. So perhaps it is time to start thinking: If you had hundreds of thousands of square footage, millions of dollars of A/V equipment, thousands of new BA and MFA students getting pumped out into your streets per year willing to subject themselves to internships and ladder climbing, free days for the public sponsored by corporations that no longer exist….what would you do? How will the institutional landscape which I have described be altered in our city and in your city?

NY Times; May 12 1987 “Burst of Growth in Chicago’s Art World”
Chicago Tribune; Apr 13, 1990 “Minority artists blast city exhibit”
NY Times; April 20, 1990 ” Chicago Journal; Art and Ire Mix Again, This Time Over Race”
Chicago Tribune;
Apr 21, 1990 “Art exhibition boycott called off”

Bio: Daniel Tucker is the editor of AREAChicago (areachicago.org). For more information see miscprojects.com

Published by Tucker


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