PROJECT chicaGO: the Art Institute of Chicago

How to make best out of your visit to the museum

In front of the Art Institute of Chicago (courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Visitors’ been swarming in the Art Institute of Chicago more than usual this week because of the opening of a new special exhibition, Van Gogh’s Bedrooms. So thought it’s all the more timely for me to write about the Art Institute for this week’s post. You might think it’s a generic and all-too-touristy place I’m reviewing, but this place is splendidly huge, dynamic, and never (yes, I did use that extreme word) disappointing to both local and outside visitors. I try going to the museum as often as possible—I make my trip at least once a month. And every time I visit, I find something new. Here on chicaGO, I want to share with you some tips/things I found over the years I think will be helpful for you to keep in mind about as you take your next visit to the museum to another level.

  1. Free Museum Days… or not

General admission to the museum is $25 a person, $22 for Illinois residents, and $20 for Chicagoans. And at times, the special exhibits cost extra money like the Van Gogh exhibition cost an extra $5. So some people wait to visit during free museum days through Bank of America or free for Illinois resident days. I do think is a smart move if you want to save your pocket. BUT, keep in mind, crowds overwhelm during those days. So, up to you. On the flip note, if you want to avoid the crowds, don’t go on those days. I think the membership program is a pretty sweet deal to take a look at if you are planning to visit the museum quite often since the members get to go visit the museum for free as many time as you want throughout the year, plus the benefits.

“Unpainted Sculpture” by Charles Ray at the Art Institute of Chicago (photograph taken by Joanne Kim)

2. Thursday Nights

Speaking of going to the museum for free, Illinois residents are free to visit every Thursday 5–8pm. FYI, if you are a Illinois resident and decide to go on a Thursday night to see Van Gogh museum for only $5, sorry! They’ll charge you $15 for it. Still a pretty good deal, eh? But wait, back off a bit—did you know that the Art Institute is open on Thursday NIGHTS? It’s just great. There’s a different vibe to visit the museum during an evening time instead of daytime. The crowds are different—you are unlikely to bump into a group of little kids on a field trip but a lot more chill yuppies in town, excited for the upcoming weekend. The lighting changes the ambiance of the galleries much, especially the sites on the modern wing directly next to glass walls. You’ll be able to appreciate art works in a different light (pun intended;)). The photo above is one I took when I visited Charles Ray’s show on a Thursday evening and the experience let me look at Ray’s work in a new way with the different scenic and lighting backdrop of the site.

3. Events & Lectures

Check out the Art Institute’s calendar to see if any upcoming events, readings, and lectures catch your eyes. Often times the museum hosts various poets, art historians, and curators to host events that are excellent.

Museum Cafe & McKinlock Court (Photographs courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

4. Museum Cafe

So there’s one cafe on the second floor of the modern wing with stools and a long communal bar-table, which is great, but, there’s THE other cafe that not a lot of people know about. The other cafe is located located on the lower level, close to the Chagall’s America Windows. The sign says “Cafe” and “Members Lounge” together so many visitors seem to be hesitant to go check it out, thinking the space is only for the members—at least, my friends and I did. Well, the cafe downstairs is actually open to all visitors. In the self-served cafeteria-style, the cafe sells drinks, coffee, baked goods, sandwiches, salads, and more. The seatings and wooden tables are spaced out well under high ceilings, making a perfect place for private conversations with your fellow visitors. Not to mention the outdoor seatings at the garden (McKinlock Court) right next to the cafe is open during spring and summer time.

Sky Above Clouds IV by Georgia O’Keeffe (Photograph courtesy of the Chicago Tribune)

5. Sky Above Clouds IV by Georgia O’Keeffe

Last but not least, this one is just a small plea, favor, and a tip. This wonderfully immensive painting by O’Keeffe is one of the better known works from the museum. They had it picked to be the background for the membership card and the recently announced director of the museum, James Rondeau, also took a profile photo in front of this work as well. But I got to say, perhaps because it is placed in between stairwells on the hallway of the museum, not many visitors seem to take a minute appreciating the painting as much. Out of the number of times I visited to Art Institute, I haven’t met a single person standing in the stairwells to really look at O’Keeffe’s work—a quick glance, “oh, that giant cloud painting! I’ve seen that before” seem to be the usual response I noticed. But, here’s one thing I think you should do the next time you visit the museum: take time looking at the painting. It will speak to you. It will hold your mind and imagination. And really, you should try the same with other works in the museum too.

Here’s one great story that shows how art works do speak and impact the viewers. In this interview, Bill Murray talks about how he encountered The Song of the Lark, a painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

So, take time, looking. Let the art works consume you and not the other way around. They are alive. They will come and touch you, if you only let them.

The Song of the Lark by Jules Adolphe Breton (Photograph courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)
The Art Institute of Chicago
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