There are a lot of things that make Chicago famous. We’ve got the deep dish pizza. We’ve got Lakeshore Drive. We’ve got the most famous championship curse in all of sports — the Cubs — while also boasting one of the most dominant players to ever take to the court: Michael Jordan.
But we also have a famed art scene. Whether you’re looking to explore large established museums or up-and-coming galleries from relative newcomers, look no further than Chicago for some of the greatest fine and contemporary art that the world has to offer.
In fact, according to the official website of the city of Chicago, the city is home to nearly 200 art galleries!
With that in mind, we want to use our familiarity with Chicago to help you wrap your head around the Chicago art scene. Whether you want to explore the larger art museums in Chicago or simply drop in on the smaller, cutting-edge Chicago art galleries, we’ve got the lowdown on the best places to take in art here in the Second City.
The Big Guns
We start our guide with the larger and more established art museums. These museums require a good portion of your day in order to fully appreciate them, but they also represent some of the most comprehensive art experiences here in Chicago. So, while you may need to plan ahead when visiting these places, they’re also the best places to start when exploring Chicago’s art.
The Art Institute of Chicago:
This is where any discussion of Chicago art begins. According to TimeOut Chicago, the Art Institute is home to over 300,000 works of art. Located right next to Millennium Park and within walking distance of Navy Pier, this museum has delighted art lovers — both tourist and native — since 1879.
Their exhibits are wide-ranging, offering some of the world’s greatest displays of both ancient and contemporary art. They have amassed an incredible permanent collection while simultaneously providing a steady flow of special, temporary exhibitions.
Furthermore, the Art Institute also boasts a world-renowned research library, which makes it an important destination for artists, architects, curators and preservationists-in-training.
It’s no wonder, then, that one and a half million visitors wander the Institute’s halls every year, according to the Institute’s own records.
Among their permanent exhibits, there are collections dedicated to African art, ancient Greek art, medieval armor, Native American art, European decorative arts and contemporary art and design. In addition, there are exhibits dedicated to textiles, architecture, miniatures and photography.
In other words, regardless of whether you prefer seeing the latest in artistic techniques or are more historical in your tastes, there’s something to see at the Art Institute. Plus, it’s perfectly located if you want to explore the rest of the Loop and downtown Chicago.
And if you get hungry, there’s a Giordano’s just blocks away along the Northern edge of Millennium Park on East Randolph Street!
So, if you’re a first-time visitor to Chicago or you’ve been living here for years and just never ventured out into the Chicago art world, make sure the Art Institute is your first stop!
The Field Museum:
While the Field Museum isn’t a traditional art museum — it was originally built in order to display the anthropological collections that were part of the 1893 Columbian Exhibition — there’s enough art, especially ancient art, to make it an important stop on any Chicago art tour.
The highlight for any art lover is the Ancient Egyptian collection. Unlike many Egyptian exhibits, the Field Museum places these artistic wonders in context by providing visitors with an authentic, three-story recreation of a Pharaonic tomb. Complete with hieroglyphic wall texts, a Book of the Dead and actual mummies, this is the closest you can get to an Egyptian tomb without traveling down the actual Nile River.
Taking a similar approach to North America, visitors can also walk through a recreation of a Southwestern Pueblo home within the Ancient Americas exhibit. Likewise, the museum also has an exhaustive collection of Mesoamerican art, helping to recreate the soaring Aztec Empire before its conquest.
Finally, there’s also a wonderful recreation of a Maori meeting house, along with a fabulous collection of Pacific Islander costumes.
The Field Museum is not far from the Art Institute, and is located right next to the equally famed Shedd Aquarium. It also isn’t far from a Giordano’s, so make sure you stop by the Michigan Avenue location and get yourself your fill of Chicago deep dish while you’re there.
Museum of Contemporary Art:
The Museum of Contemporary Art, often simply called the MCA, is more focused than those museums previously mentioned, but its extensive collection allows it to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the others as well.
The museum was established in 1964, when area art dealers and collectors wanted to establish a museum committed exclusively to the cutting-edge. Originally the MCA was intended to be a “Kunsthalle,” or a museum without a permanent collection. However, when they moved into their former building — which had previously served as Playboy’s headquarters — in 1967, followed by a large donation the following year, the MCA began work on its first permanent collection.
In 1990, it became clear that the MCA had outgrown its previous location and they moved into their current building, the National Guard’s former Chicago Avenue armory.
Over the course of their history, the MCA has hosted work from Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, and musical performances from minimalist pioneers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, along with Chris Burden’s famed performance piece, “Doomed,” in which he lay motionless behind a pane of glass for over 40 hours without taking a break or receiving any food or water.
Much of the art on display in the MCA is designed to be challenging, so be prepared to see things that might be perplexing. However, for those who really want to see art that pushes the boundaries, this is Chicago’s premier contemporary art institution.
If you find yourself famished after taking in the MCA’s work, there is a Giordano’s just a few blocks away on N. Rush Street.
National Museum of Mexican Art:
Located in the heart of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, this collection dedicated to Mexican art is world-renowned. Originally organized in 1982, this museum seeks to highlight the myriad artistic contributions of Mexicans around the world, including Chicago’s sizable Mexican community.
However, it was not until 2006 that the museum changed its name to the National Museum of Mexican Art. The name change reflects the increasingly important role that this museum plays within the Latino art world.
The museum itself boasts a nearly 10,000-piece collection that spans the large, 3,000-year scope of Mexican history. The NMMA reaches back, beginning with Mexico’s pre-Columbian past — although the museum has adopted the term “pre-Cuauhtémoc,” named after the last Aztec ruler of Tenochtitlan in an attempt to deemphasize Europe within Mexican history. However, there’s also a strong emphasis on the vibrancy of contemporary Mexican art culture.
The museum’s mission is defined as “sin fronteras,” which is Spanish for “without borders.” As such, there is no distinction placed between art that originated with the country of Mexico and the art produced by Mexicans living outside of the country’s borders.
There is also a history of advocacy at the NMMA, as they try to serve the predominately Mexican-American neighborhood where they are located.
But this is not a museum simply for Mexican-Americans. It’s a must-see for any art lover. With a wide range of ephemera, textiles, paintings, sculptures and folk art, their collection is as vibrant and exciting as the culture it represents.
And like the rest of these incredible museums, you won’t be far from a Giordano’s! In this case, just head over to our W. 18th Street location, just a few blocks away.
DePaul Art Museum:
Associated with the art department at DePaul University, a visit here is a great way to see bright young artists just getting started, while supporting the next generation of creatives as they begin their careers.
Just like the rest of the University, the museum focuses on issues affecting urban Chicago. As such, they combine a commitment to student and faculty art with a permanent collection that reflects the city in which it resides. Additionally, faculty at DePaul, even those outside of the fine arts, have found ways to use the museum and its collection to enhance student instruction.
This museum is farther north, in the Lincoln Park region of Chicago. However, it’s in close proximity to the Lincoln Park Zoo and can easily be incorporated into a larger trip to the park. Although it’s a bit of a hike, the closest Giordano’s is our location on W. Belmont Avenue, in case you get hungry.
Smart Museum of Art:
Like the DePaul Art Museum, the Smart Museum is associated with a university: in this case, the University of Chicago. And while it would be fair to call anything associated with this highly acclaimed institution “smart,” the museum is in fact named after David and Alfred Smart, who were important publishers in Chicago.
Despite possessing a wealth of material for display — over 15,000 objects — the Smart prides itself in always being free to the public. This makes this museum a great outreach tool for the university and a great way to introduce the curious and uninitiated to the world of fine art.
The museum first opened in 1974, and prides itself on a rich history of scholarly collaboration. Its collection is broad-based, but like any university museum, it also hosts a wide range of temporary and student-driven exhibitions.
The museum is located in the southern part of the city, in the same area as the Museum of Science and Industry, so it’d be easy to combine a trip to both. For the hungry art lovers, our Blackstone Avenue location isn’t far.
While the aforementioned museums boast incredible collections, those looking to truly discover new art often prefer to explore smaller galleries. These often feature rotating exhibitions by contemporary and active artists, and many times, the art on display is even for sale with prices reflecting the renown of the artists.
So, if you’re ready to move on to the work of lesser-known — though no less talented — artists, check out these small galleries.
Chicago Arts District:
The Chicago Arts District is a great place to start. This curated neighborhood was created as a haven for Chicago’s creative types to live, work and display their art.
Launched in 2002, the CAD has supported over 100 creative entrepreneurs in an attempt to make the arts life a little easier in Chicago.
In addition to being a great place to mingle with artists and shop for their wares, the CAD is also home to almost 25 galleries, meaning there’s a lot of great art to see. And, as it’s located just a short trip away from the NMMA, a visit to the CAD is a great way to make a day out of seeing art.
This spacey gallery is located in the West Loop. Founded in 1988, it’s grown famous for what has been termed “the Vortex.” According to those who have experienced it, the Vortex is a concentration of creative energy that vibrates through those who are “attuned to it.” As an offering, local artists leave paint squiggles and diamond dust within the back alley behind the gallery.
However, even if you’re a New Age skeptic, there’s no doubt that this is a well-established, creative place where Chicago’s avant-garde have been gathering for over 25 years. For those familiar with the best Chicago artists of the last quarter-century, you’ll recognize many of the names that have hung their work here.
This innovative and intimate space is located in Pilsen. The project space often houses works dedicated to technology and its effects on society. In fact, it’s no coincidence that the gallery bears the Spanish spelling of the more familiar word “antenna.” While it’s meant to evoke the technology needed to receive and/or transmit electromagnetic waves, it’s also meant to reflect the local and specific consequences of that technology within a Pilsen context.
This may be a tough one for those with preconceived notions of what a gallery is supposed to be like, but if you have an open mind, you’re likely to find the cutting-edge art on display to be quite rewarding indeed.
Carl Hammer Gallery:
The Carl Hammer Gallery has been connecting Chicago’s fine artists with collectors for over 37 years. As a result, this gallery has become an institution within the Chicago arts scene and is a must-visit for anyone looking to potentially make a purchase during their trip.
In the end, they’re successful because they’ve found the perfect blend of prestigious curation and business acumen. The gallery is well worth visiting even if you aren’t looking to purchase art. But if you are interested, they are there to share their years of expertise, whether you’re interested in art and interior design or art investment.
The mission of Co-Prosperity Sphere is as difficult to figure out as its name. However, that’s in fact a strength of this creative space, not a weakness. While there are very few parameters in regards to the type of work on display here, the result is a willingness to experiment. And that’s the essence of art.
They host a number of exhibitions in the space every year — somewhere from 35 to 60 — and the owners of the space estimate that 10,000 patrons make their way through annually.
Ed Paschke Art Center:
This gallery is dedicated to the work of one renowned Chicago artist, the late Ed Paschke. Known as a bit of a wild eccentric, the gallery bearing his name is as colorful and “out there” as the man himself. However, his is not the only art on display, as the gallery offers an artist-in-residence and regularly displays the works of newer artists who exude the same energy as Paschke.
As described by the gallery, Intuit is a space for intuitive and outsider art. Specifically, all art on display here has been created by artists without any formal training.
While amateurs have had a voice in art for a long time, Intuit represents a more recent current within the art collecting world. So-called “outsider art” has been gaining in popularity and, as such, has attracted the attention of keen-eyed collectors looking to buy the work of artists before they make it big.
While a commitment to outsider art means that there can be a wide range of art types on display, a visit to Intuit is the perfect way to get ahead of the curve and discover a new artist before they’ve acquired name recognition.
Hyde Park Art Center:
The Hyde Park Art Center has been around for a while. It was first opened in 1939. However, despite its age, it still has a reputation for innovation. That’s why it can claim to be Chicago’s oldest alternative exhibition space. In fact, for those who study art history, the Imagist Movement — the most famous art movement to originate in Chicago — first took root at the Hyde Park Art Center.
As an institution, it is committed to bringing the cutting-edge to the people. While it’s a world-renowned art space, it also sees itself as a community center serving area residents and by providing them space for collaboration and organization. In other words, it’s the perfect place to engage with the avant-garde while avoiding the arrogance so often associated with it. It is a truly diverse place where the best of Chicago’s artists engage with the realities of the city.
Carrie Secrist Gallery:
This is another wonderfully curated gallery that puts the best of Chicago art on display. Located in the West Loop, it’s both edgy and thought-provoking. The gallery is committed to offering space for emerging artists, so it’s a great place to check out what’s happening currently in the art world.
This is the most artist-friendly gallery in the city. The gallery takes zero commissions from pieces sold, and they give artists complete license to use the space as they see fit. The result is a gallery that seems completely under the influence of artistic vision. While it’s a risky model, here it works well, allowing artists to put their best work on display.
Art and Pizza: The Perfect Combination!
We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to Chicago art! While we may not be artists in the traditional sense, we do like to think that our approach to our craft — making the best pizza in Chicago — gives us a little insight into what it means to truly be an artist. And we certainly love Chicago and everything that this great city represents.
So, while we may only be pizza artists, we do hope you come visit us sometime, especially while you’re touring the city looking for the latest creative feats Chicago’s great artists have completed. We know that if you sit down with one of our wonderful, thick, buttery crusted deep dish pizzas, you will come to appreciate our work in much the same way. After all, aren’t we all just trying to put the best of Chicago on display in the end?