Art Institute of Chicago’s massive extension opens

Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing will make it the second largest art museum in the US

Detail of Cantilever Staircase in Griffin Court Photo: James Iska, Art Institute of Chicago.

CHICAGO. The Art Institute of Chicago has completed a stunning new building designed by the architect Renzo Piano to house one of the finest collections of 20th-century art in the United States. The Modern Wing, which opens to the public on 16 May, is the largest expansion in the Art Institute’s 130-year history. The building increases the institution’s space by 35% to one million square feet, making the Art Institute the second largest art museum in the US after the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The Modern Wing contains around 1,000 works of European and American art and design since 1900. It enables the Art Institute for the first time to consolidate its modern and contemporary collections that had been distributed throughout the multi-building complex, and to present the works in an elegant and appropriate setting. It also provides new spaces for photography and media, architecture and design, temporary exhibitions and a massive facility for education. The addition is the centrepiece of a comprehensive reorganisation of the encyclopaedic museum. (Chicago also has a Museum of Contemporary Art, but its director, Madeleine Grynsztejn, considers the institutions’ roles complementary rather than competitive. “The MCA creates art history and the Art Institute summarises it,” she said.)

The project is the culmination of a $385m fundraising campaign—roughly $300m for design and construction and $85m for the endowment—that is seven times larger than any before undertaken by the Art Institute. Museum officials say they have raised around $370m primarily from private patrons in Chicago, scores of whom contributed multi-million-dollar sums. Trustee John Bryan, a former chairman of the Art Institute and a leader of the campaign, calls the Modern Wing “the most important building in Chicago built in the last 100 years”.

The Art Institute has long been known for its superb impressionist and post-impressionist holdings, but the post-1900 collections are comparably rich, surpassed in the US only by those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and perhaps the Philadelphia Art Museum. “Very few museums have such remarkable strength on each side of 1900 and I think you’re really going to sense that now,” says James Wood, president of the Getty Trust, who was director of the Art Institute when the project was launched a decade ago.

Piano’s structure is an elegant 264,000 sq. ft, three-storey box with curtain walls of glass and steel framed by limestone pillars. The ground floor is bisected by a cavernous atrium that contains visitor services and a shop, with access to photography, new media and temporary exhibition halls—the opening show will be recent work by Cy Twombly (16 May-13 September)—as well as education facilities and a garden courtyard. The top floor’s openwork roof admits daylight that is further diffused by a scrim of fabric, and floating above the whole is a louvred canopy—dubbed the “flying carpet”—that shades the building from direct sunlight.

The third floor of the Modern Wing is devoted to a chronology of modern pre-war European art from around 1900 to 1950. The second floor begins with abstract expressionism and continues into contemporary art from pop and minimalism to the West Coast and Chicago. Some 7,500 sq. ft of galleries triple the space for the expanded department of architecture and design.

An additional $60m was raised for reinstallation of major parts of the pre-modern permanent collection. The chronology of European painting, sculpture and decorative arts from the Renaissance to the late 19th century has been clarified and the decorative arts displays expanded. (Architects John Vinci of the Chicago firm Vinci Hamp, and Kulapat Yantrasast of Los Angeles-based Why oversaw the redesign.) Sculptures from the Himalayas, Southeast Asia and India have been brought together in a space that Piano has refurbished, reopening covered windows to admit light and enhance way-finding.

The Modern Wing also reorders the Art Institute’s space, making it easier to navigate the campus. Previously there was only an east-west axis extending from the bronze lions on Michigan Avenue. With the new wing, the Art Institute gains a second grand entrance and a north-south axis that provides greater spatial clarity and alternative routes. A 620-ft pedestrian bridge carries visitors from the top floor of the new wing across the street into Millennium Park, touching down near the mirrored Cloud Gate sculpture by Anish Kapoor that has become an icon of the city.

“There is an enormous amount of civic pride in the city,” says Mr Bryan, the former chief executive of food giant Sara Lee. “People want to define their city as a superior place. They want to give back to the place where they usually made some money, and they respond to being recognised as being part of a group in their time that is generous and can give significantly to worthy things,” he said. James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute since 2004, said that more than 30 contributors gave $100,000 to the campaign, another 15 or 20 gave $1m to $5m, a dozen gave more than $20m, and an anonymous donor gave more than $50m. Nearly all are Chicagoans. They include hedge fund magnate Ken Griffin and his wife Anne, Shirley and Patrick Ryan of insurer Aon Corporation, the family of real estate mogul Neil Bluhm, philanthropist and collector Marilyn Alsdorf, Frances Comer, whose late husband Gary founded Land’s End clothing company, and industrialist John and Alexandra Nichols—each of whom donated more than $10m.

Fundraising was largely completed before the downturn in the economy, but the expanded museum will be expensive to operate. Mr Cuno says the budget will rise from $77m to $97m. Mr Bryan says that is too high. The endowment has lost a quarter of its value since 30 June 2008 when it was $641m, and the economic outlook is causing “some anxiety”. Mr Cuno is confident that a deficit can be avoided without slashing programmes by reducing costs and raising money. The museum has been raising an average of around $60m a year for the expansion, and “there’s still some capacity out there”, he said. Meanwhile, in March the Art Institute issued two series of bonds totalling $140m to finance construction and other costs while waiting for pledges to come in.

Mr Bryan is uncertain whether the city’s patrons can continue to participate at the level they have. “Since about 1990 Chicago has had a time of considerable prosperity and growth and an explosion in the cultural infrastructure of our city,” he says, citing new facilities and increased endowments for the symphony, the opera and theatres. “If you look at the last 130 years since Chicago became a serious city, nothing really compares to what has happened in the last 15 years here. We’ve gone through such a good period that we can afford to rest for a while.”

For our six-page Chicago Focus, see The Art Newspaper, May 2009


Detail of Cantilever Staircase in Griffin Court Photo: James Iska, Art Institute of Chicago.
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