Smile Politely

The Art Institute of Chicago’s newly-opened Modern Wing? Meraviglioso!

Scene: Art Institute of Chicago. Modern Wing. Coat check. Rainy, cool, Saturday afternoon in late May. A maze of elastic crowd control rope results in momentary confusion as to where the line begins and ends. Several people of all stripes are at various stages of shedding their rain-soaked umbrellas and ponchos with an air of “There goes my bright idea of a day in Millennium Park and letting the kids run through the fountain-spouty things all afternoon.” and “I hate Chicago weather!” and “I’m moving to California. For real this time.” Upon my turn in the coat check line, the attendant thinks I tell him I have ‘booZe’ rather than ‘booTs’ in my checked bag. Laughter ensues.

In all, the coat-check and admission process took just a few minutes, and with rain gear safely stowed, I was ready to explore the much-anticipated new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, which opened May 16, 2009, after years of construction.

The Modern Wing’s design is by Renzo Piano, a world-renowned Italian architect. Piano is known for the National Library and National Opera of Greece and the New York Times Building in NYC, among several other buildings in the U.S. and abroad. Of Renzo’s design, Debbie Foley-Forrestal, a longtime Chicago resident, asserts, “In the five weeks since the opening of the Modern Wing, I’ve visited twice and plan to return as often as possible. The external building is an important part of the experience — grand, impressive and yet soaring when seen from Millennium Park or Michigan Avenue.”

Though oft-critiqued for its potentially hazardous footpath, Piano’s “Nicholas Bridgeway” stands 625 feet long and 60 feet high. Made of aluminum and steel, the bridgeway connects the southwest corner of Millennium Park with the third-floor entrance to the Modern Wing. Despite the rain, I did not find the bridge particularly slippery when I used it; though I could see how care must and should be taken when using that particular entrance.

Cost of admission aside (the AIC has recently endorsed a “new fee structure” — did someone get paid to devise a more palatable way to say “higher price of admission”?), my experience in the 264,000 square-feet Modern Wing was completely pleasurable, and I spent about two hours in the wing — which seemed just enough time to see what I wanted in the four main collections (Modern European, Contemporary, Architecture and Design, and Photography) of the wing without suffering from museum-fatigue. (As well, there are several ways to gain free admission to the museum, which are detailed at the end of this article.)

Memorable works from my visit include Marcel Duchamp’s “Hat Rack” (1964), Salvador Dalí’s “Visions of Eternity” (1936/37); David Hockney’s “The Old Guitarist, from Blue Guitar” (1976/77, below), and an “Untitled” installation by Robert Gober (1989/96). Gober’s 800 square-foot installation comments on issues of race and class in a strikingly powerful way, in my view, and I could go on for reams about it. But, I’ll just leave it at, “You’ve got to see it.”

Another — if not the most — memorable aspect of the wing regards the attention to natural light throughout the galleries. Atop the building’s roof is a “unique sunshade” or “flying carpet,” whereby “computer-modeled blades” automatically adjust to varying levels of daily light. According to the AIC website, this provides for an “optimal atmosphere for viewing art while saving electricity at the same time.” For Mark Forrestal, also a longtime Chicago resident and seasoned museum patron, the natural light offers a “cool, quiet, natural” mood through which one can “enjoy the less familiar and more challenging works [of the MW].” In a word: agreed.

Moreover, floor-to-ceiling windows throughout the MW allow for unobstructed views of what I think of as quintessential Chicago: clean, straight lines of monotone, steely buildings juxtaposed by softer edges of individual leaves on the trees that populate Millennium and Grant Park and rustle about from lakeshore winds — all bordered by blue (well, on the day I visited it was grey, but I used my imagination) skies.

Renzo Piano is quoted as saying, “It is not enough for the light to be perfect. You also need calm, serenity, and even a voluptuous quality linked to contemplation of works of aft.” Well, though I entirely respect this assessment, I was yet able to enjoy my experience sans complete calm and serenity — i.e., an occasional shriek from a nearby happy four-year old; one no-no loud-ish mobile phone conversation; and a few accidental camera flashes by fellow patrons. At least in my view, this is part of the museum-going experience — weekend crowds; a mix of those who visited the city to see a single work alongside those wishing to get a break from whatever weather Chicago has up its sleeve. Aside from the bustle, however, the general noise level was not noticeable to me, as per apparently fantastic acoustics that dampen foot and conversation traffic.

In my view, the Modern Wing does its best to make the experience fun, approachable, and family friendly. What might be particularly appealing to those with children (or not) are free family tours (1/2 hour in duration) that depart from the Modern Wing’s Ryan Education Center, and/or other free, no registration-required demonstrations and events for kids and teens. If you’re unable to visit, the museum encourages online interaction via online galleries, podcasts, and mailings. AIC even has a twitter account.

Thus, if you think you’ve had enough of Claude Monet’s “Haystack” variations, Georgia O’Keeffe various renditions of a flower and skull; Andy Warhol soup cans — all of which I respect as brilliant masterpieces of the AIC, nevertheless — the Modern Wing might be that breath of fresh air that you’re looking for.

For my next visit, I hope to explore the 20,000 square-feet of new green space added by the MW and slightly reminiscent of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C.; the various cafes in the MW; see more of the Contemporary pieces (fun factor: high); and order a picnic lunch from the wing’s Terzo Piano (“third floor” in Italian), which is run by four-star Spiaggia’s Chef Tony Mantuano (no lie!).

(P.S. If you the Modern Wing leaves you wanting more museum interaction, you might check out the Harry Potter exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago — there through September 27, 2009.)


Again, what I detail is merely my one, singular experience, and I do not doubt that others’ experiences might’ve played out differently, and I respect those whose ideas of the Modern Wing were or are less positive.

The logistics of a visit-which again, could be for another article-could be mapped out via a quick visit to the museum’s website. Details about planning a trip for a family, for example, and the museum’s full event calendar can be accessed from the AIC website:

Museum hours: Monday – Wednesday 10:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Thursday – Friday 10:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. (*5 p.m. – 9 p.m. free admission, summer 2009); Saturday-Sunday (10 a.m. – 5 p.m.).

Admission: Adults — $18; Students & Seniors — $12; Chicago Residents — $2 discount with proof of residency; Children under 14, Illinois teachers and Illinois school groups, Chicago police and firefighters, Active members of the U.S. military, Disabled U.S. Veterans — Free; Entire month of Feb. — Free; Each school group participant receives a free family pass to return free with his or her whole family at a later date.

The AIC is located at 111 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill.

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