I have to admit that the title of this post made me roll my eyes. Because, of course the Art Institute of Chicago is in Chicago. Except not really. Just as two examples, there is the Chicago Zoological Park, which is located in Brookfield, Illinois (and which, consequently, is commonly called “Brookfield Zoo”) and the Chicago Botanic Gardens, which is in Glencoe. So I guess it’s not as silly as it would seem.
Much like the Field Museum of Natural History, I have a lot of early memories of the Art Institute. I remember going to the Art Institute with my parents and some other adult when I was very young indeed. Literally the only concrete memory I have of that trip to the museum is a sweeping staircase and a large glass wall. I was so young that I honestly wasn’t sure if the staircase was a real place or not. Then, once I had some kind of continuity of memory (so around ten or so), we went back and there it was. They describe it as a spiral staircase though it’s more, well, sweeping than what I usually think of as a spiral staircase, plus it only goes around a little more than one time. Now in my memory, there was something that I, at such a young age, identified as a large statue of a mushroom on the floor beneath it (I haven’t been able to identify the mushroom. Maybe the mushroom was part of a dream.)
I have, of course, returned to the Art Institute many times over the intervening years and have plenty of more concrete memories of it than some stairs and what might or might not be a mushroom. When I was maybe 10 or 11, my parents became members of the museum for a time and we took frequent advantage of the free admission for members. My dad needed to go downtown to do research during my adolescence and I went with him several of those times. The Art Institute was one of my favorite places to go during those days (and twice I brought a friend with me).
I am, by the way, not the only person in my family who has early semi-formed memories of the Art Institute as a nice place to visit. In 2010, Alex and I were spending the one day of our four-day trip to Chicago downtown. We had gone for the Taste of Chicago festival and once we were done there, I suggested that we visit the Art Institute (since they’re both in Grant Park). We were tired, and Alex was reluctant, but agreed to just stick his head in. So we did, we walked maybe five steps in and Alex said, “I dream about this place.” I asked if they were good dreams and he said that they were. So he comes by that honest.
I tell people that Monet is my favorite artist. It’s not because he is popular or because his artwork would match my sofa (I have two, both taupe, so probably pretty much anything would match my sofa(s) equally well (or poorly, I guess)). Monet is my favorite artist in part because I’m pretty severely nearsighted (though less so in my later years than I was in my youth). The softer focus, particularly of works during the late 1890s actually feels kind of like home to me. Another reason why I am so fond of Monet is because on one of my memories from probably 1977 or so, my mom and I kept identifying certain paintings as something we particularly liked. And nearly always, we were in agreement, and almost every time, the painting was by Monet. The Art Institute has the largest collection of works by Monet outside of France, so there are a lot of Monet paintings to choose from if water lilies aren’t your thing.
The Art Institute is home to a few other well-known works of art. You may have heard of some of them: Chagall’s America Windows, Hopper’s Nighthawks, Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte, Wood’s American Gothic, and a whole bunch of others you might not know by name, such as the Toulouse-Lautrec self-portrait of himself at the Moulin Rouge (the distinguishing feature of this one, however, is the woman with the sort of bluish/cyan face in the foreground, which was for a time tucked underneath the frame, so I am apparently not the only person who finds her unsettling) and also the painting of Dorian Gray used as the painting in the 1945 movie with Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford and . . . Hurd Hatfield?
The spiral staircase notwithstanding, the Art Institute is wheelchair accessible (wheelchair-friendly entrances are located at the main entrance and also the Modern Wing entrance).