The Art Institute Exposed

By Alisha Ankin and Mieke Miller

The Art Institute of Chicago, which we have most recently visited in March, is the perfect example of the “traditional” museum which is often viewed as the pinnacle of Western culture as it derived from the values of the Ancient Greeks. Its impressive exterior pulls many elements from classical architecture. The Roman arches, decorative Corinthian columns, exquisitely carved friezes, prominent pediment, and wide steps mirror Grecian and Roman temples, as the museum itself is a temple of art. This precious institution is guarded by massive iron lions that flank the entrance. One cannot enter the museum without receiving the message of importance and grandeur.

But what is the Art Institute really like? Does it deserve its place on such a high pedestal? Is there more to this museum than its inspiring façade?

It is universally agreed upon that the Art Institute of Chicago has an extensive collection of art. Because of this, unfortunately, it would take multiple days to see everything displayed at the museum. The average trip lasts about three hours in which an ambitious visitor might make it to three sections. The sheer enormity of the museum is responsible for the museum fatigue of visitors. When museum goers try to fit as many works into their trip as possible, they might find themselves overwhelmed and under appreciative of the works due to sensory overload. This is a major, although regrettably uncorrectable, problem with the Art Institute. It simply holds too many pieces to see them all in one day and remain sane.

To combat this problem, the museum provides detailed maps for guests, which a smart visitor will utilize to form a navigation plan. The maps are an effective way of making the museum accessible and manageable. For those who struggle with reading maps, are too lazy to read one, or are just plain lost, the museum has staff members stationed throughout the building to assist with directions and questions. For instance, “Where is the bathroom?”

The museum does a good job of accommodating the visitor’s needs. It provides bathrooms on each floor for those with bladders, elevators and ramps for those who are handicapped, and a cafeteria for the hungry. The cafeteria is ultimately designed to keep museum goers in the museum longer and to get them to spend more money. At least they make the food delicious! But delicious food is, sadly, expensive.

Actually everything in this museum is expensive. The whole shebang is arguably overpriced, from the tickets to the gift shop trinkets. This can make it difficult for some to visit the museum as they simply cannot afford it. The Art Institute of Chicago is unfortunately a cultural experience exclusively for the economically privileged.

However, it could be argued that the museum is expensive for a reason. As a large institution, it costs a lot of money to run the building, preserve works, pay employees, etc. So an expensive entrance fee is perhaps not so unreasonable. However, the museum does what it can to reduce fees for visitors. For example, the museum has discounts for students and seniors, kids under 14 are free, and there is free admission for Illinois residents on Thursday evenings in addition to reduced price the rest of the week. And as the museum offers such a wonderful experience, many people would consider it to be worth the money. One gets a lot of art, culture, and knowledge all in one place.

Visitors also get to see many world famous works by renowned  artists at the Art Institute of Chicago. Seurat, Picasso, Monet, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Dürer are just a few of the famous artists one can see. Well known works such as American Gothic and At the Moulin Rouge are also on display. Some paintings are hung at eye level in large gilded frames on white walls. To avoid monotony, the museum exhibits some works on green or gray walls to help tie in the mood of the exhibit. For example, the Indian exhibit contains many Hindu sculptures that contrast sharply to the red walls. Despite this Eastern exhibit, the most prominent works are European or American. Euro-centrism is a theme in many museums that is regrettably continued in the Art Institute of Chicago. That being said, the museum does hold a large collection of Asian and African art. The Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan art featured in the Aladorf galleries are strategically placed between the entrance and the more popular western galleries including the sculpture court, Greek and Roman displays, and modern wing. This demonstrates that the museum is making an effort to include other cultures and break the streak of “traditional” Western museum. However, there is room for improvement as the African, Indian Art of the Americas, and Chinese, Japanese, and Korean art collections are tucked off to the side.

The museum itself, however, is anything but tucked away. It is hard to miss sitting in the Museum Campus on Chicago’s S Michigan Ave. Located near the shore of Lake Michigan, the museum lies between the famous Millennium Park and other prestigious institutions including the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium.

The Art Institute can definitely hold its own among these impressive establishments in an impressive city with much to offer. Despite its issues of museum fatigue, expense, and Euro-centrism, which are issues faced by many “traditional” Western museums, the Art Institute of Chicago, in our opinion, with its expansive collection, innovative use of color for exhibit walls, and accommodations for visitors, deserves its place high on a pedestal. The museum’s extravagance is warm and exciting rather than cold and daunting the way museums can be. A beautiful building inside and out, the museum thrills and inspires wonder in its visitors whether visit number one or one-hundred.



2 thoughts on “The Art Institute Exposed

  1. I really enjoyed reading your review of the Art Institute of Chicago! I agree with you both about the great location of the Art Institute. From the Art Institute, it is just a short walk through beautiful Grant Park along the lake shore to reach other museum institutions on the Chicago Museum Campus (Shedd, Adler, Field). I think this is a great area of Chicago that is both inviting to tourists as well as accessible to locals. Quite a difference from the “isolation of a distant park” where art museums were found when Dana (1917) wrote about “The Gloom of the Museum”.


  2. I appreciate your discussing the Euro-centrist aspect of the Art Institute. This is one of the issues that plagues modern museology (as we’ve discussed in class) and deserves mentioning in any more generalized review of a museum. I also appreciated your discussing the outside appearance of the museum. That being said, I would like to note that the lions are bronze, but I appreciate that you included them in your discussion of the museum’s facade; they are certainly an important aspect of the overall atmosphere of import and awe.

    What I liked most was that you focused on the overload some visitors experience. I’ve personally had trouble connecting to exhibits sometimes simply because I’d already spent hours walking around and appreciating art. Maps might alleviate that issue by giving visitors some direction, but with museum admission (and parking!) sometimes being quite expensive, it’s difficult to come back and visit the exhibits you just can’t make it to your first time around.


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