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Art Institute of Chicago ushers in new era with Modern Wing

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The Art Institute of Chicago capped more than ten years of planning, fundraising, and building with the recent grand opening of its new Modern Wing. As the museum welcomed throngs of visitors during the free, day-long civic dedication recently, it also officially ushered in a new era for art, philanthropy, and the city it calls home.

First started as an art school in 1866 and expanded to include a museum in 1879, the Art Institute moved to its current location in 1893. By the end of the 20th century, it had evolved into one of the world's leading museums, with the third largest art collection in the U.S.; however, despite six major additions over the years, it had outgrown its space.

In the 1990s, a group of donors stepped forward to assist, giving the Art Institute "a cornerstone gift of about $50 million" toward the new building's $294 million cost, said Erin Hogan, the museum's director of public affairs. Their contribution helped the museum raise more than $410 million-enough to cover all design and construction costs as well as an operating endowment and reinstallation throughout the museum's older sections. Nearly all these funds came from private sources. As a result, "The building is already paid for," and with the endowment "we won't go bankrupt trying to maintain it," Hogan said.

In a move almost unheard of in our era, "The donors preferred to remain anonymous, which is why the new building is called the Modern Wing" instead of being named for an individual or corporation, Hogan explained. The donors also wanted to "name the building for the spirit of Chicago, which is a force that's always moving forward, always progressing, progressing, progressing," she said. "You can see it in the city's history, in the architecture, and in a lot of the businesses that are in Chicago. The Modern Wing-both the name and the building itself-represents that relentless pushing forward."

In 1999, the museum hired Italian architect Renzo Piano to design what would become its largest expansion ever. Besides having won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize (an award paid and named for a Chicago philanthropic family) and bringing major museum design experience (including the Centre Pompidou in Paris), Piano expresses his architectural vision with what James Cuno, the Art Institute's director, called "a kind of elegant modesty" that fits well with the Art Institute's design goals.


Culture and nature

The Modern Wing combines culture (in both its architecture and the museum's art collection) with nature by taking advantage of its location in Grant Park and adjacent to Millennium Park. The new building's entrance faces north onto Millennium Park, where a pedestrian bridge enables visitors to stroll south from the park's lawn, across and above Monroe Street, and into the museum's new outdoor sculpture garden. Large, ample windows throughout the building's three stories provide numerous park and skyline views, an interior garden and exterior plantings further integrate outdoors with indoors, and extensive use of glass and semi-transparent, adjustable window coverings along with skylights and a light-capturing canopy above the roof flood the building with natural light while keeping temperatures comfortable and artworks safe from overexposure. Based on these and numerous other green features, the museum is applying for LEED certification.

Visitors entering at the new Monroe Street doors find themselves in a light-filled central court soaring three stories above street level. On the left (east), on the first floor, sits a spacious, multimedia education center for all ages and galleries for photography, film, video, and new media; the second and third floors house galleries for contemporary art and modern European art. To the right (west) of the central court, the first floor offers a new museum shop, coat check and other visitor services, and special exhibit galleries for temporary shows of modern and contemporary art; the second and third floors hold galleries for architecture and design, a new restaurant, and the outdoor sculpture garden with access to the pedestrian bridge.

To inaugurate the special exhibit galleries and underscore the Modern Wing's commitment to nature, the Art Institute is presenting Cy Twombly: The Natural World, Selected Works 2000-20007, now through Sunday, September 13. In addition, the photography, architecture and design, and contemporary art departments have organized five special exhibits that combine significant works from the museum's collection with selected pieces by photographers Gaylen Gerber, Liz Deschenes, and Judith Turner; sculptor Scott Burton; and video artist Steve McQueen.

The real stars, however, are the Art Institute items on display. As Cuno noted, the architect "worked directly with the curators to create spaces with specific works in mind" and to show such works at their best via natural light whenever possible. A roomful of painted aluminum pieces from Robert Ryman's Elliott Room series reinforces these modernist white works' cool, calming, and poetic effects by placing them in a space filled with windows and a long, white oak bench that invites contemplation.

The third floor gallery housing modern European painting and sculpture particularly exemplifies this effort: Picasso's beautiful Portrait of Sylvette David from 1954, which shows a young woman with ponytail and blue slacks in a style that echoes elements in Chicago's beloved Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, can be found all by itself in the little area that leads into the gallery. Inside the gallery, Rene Magritte's 1938 painting of Time Transfixed, which shows a steam locomotive bursting out from a fireplace's back wall, hangs alone on a large wall; beyond and behind it, windows give glimpses of that natural world surrounding the Modern Wing. Perhaps most moving is Magritte's 1958 painting The Banquet, a haunting vision of a sunset occupying the far wall of a long Surrealist gallery devoted largely to Joseph Cornell's mysterious boxes.

New admission policies, prices, hours

As of May 23, the museum took another step into the future with what Cuno described as "a robust program of free and discounted ticketing." For decades, the Art Institute had a "suggested" admission charge rather than a required one; those who could not afford it were admitted as long as they paid something, however little. In 2006, the museum ended that practice by making its posted admission fees ($12 for adults; $7 for children, students, and seniors; free for children younger than 12) required. Combined with fees for checking coats and extra charges for special exhibits (let alone a meal or a purchase at the museum shop), the cost of visiting the museum has climbed significantly in recent years.

"Today, we are reconfirming our commitment to the city, a commitment that spans generations," Cuno said. "Now, for a single price of $18--$12 if you're a student or $2 off that if you're a Chicago resident-you can have access to the entire museum. And that includes everything, because coat check is free, and there's no charge for special exhibits."

The museum also is expanding opportunities to enjoy its offerings for free. It has doubled the number of free admission passes at Chicago Public Library branches to ten per branch for a potential 3,280 free admissions daily. It also has made admission free for children younger than 14 (instead of 12) as well as for active duty armed forces personnel, Chicago Police and Fire Department employees, Illinois educators, and disabled veterans. Besides free admission in February and on Thursday evenings, summertime hours now will include free evening admission on Friday as well as Thursday and a later closing time of 9 p.m. In addition, Hogan noted that the public "can come and enjoy the new sculpture garden and the education center at any time without paying us a dime."

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Anne Nordhaus-Bike is president of ANB Communications. The author of the award-winning Living in Harmony astrology column for the Gazette newspaper in Chicago, she has won several journalism awards and in 1997 was added to the "Wall of Fame" of the (more...)
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