Art Institute Expansion Opens Tomorrow. Not Quite Done

The Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing

The Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing

The Art Institute of Chicago opens its biggest expansion in years tomorrow. The new 264,000 square foot modern wing comes complete with a slew of eco-friendly features, a big name starchitect, and a $294,000,000.00 price tag.

It’s the first major public project for the Italian architect in Chicago, though as the New York Times notes, the rest of “America has been suffering from Renzo Piano fatigue.” He’s been doing art museums in Texas and California since the 80’s.

I went down to the museum on Thursday, figuring that if it was going to open on Saturday, it would be finished. I was wrong. There was still much frantic dozing of bull, scaping of land, and even some cement work being done. I did get to watch as a guy folded on his knees on the ground scratched “Renzo Piano” into the cornerstone near the new entrance. I always thought that sort of work would be done in an artisan’s studio, not in the hot sun and dust of East Monroe Street with what looked like little more than a screwdriver, but I’m sure was a much more sophisticated tool than I can comprehend.  The Art Institute of Chicago's Modern WingI didn’t get that good a look at it because some guy in a hard hat and an accent I couldn’t quite identify driving a scissor jack yelled at me to get out of his way. Renzo? Not likely. But maybe one of his flunkies. What an honor to be admonished by the man next to the man next to the guy who gets coffee for the architect who designed a museum in Chicago 20 years after doing the legendary Menil Collection in Houston. We’d might as well be Winnipeg.

I’m not trying to be critical. Certainly not. The building is beautiful, and I hope it stays that way. There’s lots of intricate gleaming white surfaces that will need to be cleaned. Thanks to Iowa, Chicago’s a lot dustier than some cities. I hope that the building can be kept looking like new. I think it’s a nice building.

The Art Institute of Chicago's Modern WingIt’s also important to note that according to its new signs and logos, the joint is now the “Art Institvte” as if we’ve stepped back in time to ancient Greece and no longer have use of the letter “u.” Funny how the “Modern” wing gets the old alphabet.

It’s not exactly daring or groundbreaking or anything like that, but it’s new. I like new. It turns out, it’s not supposed to be cutting-edge. Again, to quote the Times:

…The subdued nature of his designs — sophisticated but not too threatening or unfamiliar — which seem tailored to ease the insecurities of museum boards. Some envy his elegance, which makes him seem equally at home in corporate boardrooms and lofty cultural circles.

It’s hard to know how these qualities will play out amid the gloom and doom of the new economy. In some ways Mr. Piano’s refined, risk-averse architecture may be more appealing than ever. He is not out to start a revolution. His designs are about tranquillity, not conflict.

Tranquility is good. Especially when you’re trying to immerse yourself in a great piece of art and some little brat who’s way too old to still be pushed around in a stroller is screaming at the top of her lungs for no apparent reason other than people are looking at something other than her.The Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing I believe that art museums (along with airlines and restaurants) would find that there are millions of people willing to pay a premium for child-free access to their facilities, even if only for a few hours a week.

Of course, there are already people who pay for premium access to the Art Institute. They’re called “members.” I was one when I first moved to Chicago, but didn’t renew my membership because the museum sold my information to every charity from here to Peoria. I value my privacy a little more than the Institute does.

Regardless, there were plenty of members on hand on Thursday, as it was a member preview day. They got to go inside and marvel at the space, and the art, and the new garden of serenity, and crawl all over the new Nichols Bridgeway (we’ll have an article on that on Monday). They also got to watch some girl carrying a green flag run up and down the new bridge over Monroe while being timed by a man with a stopwatch.

In all, I think the new wing will be a success. I’ll be among the throngs of people shoving their way in on Saturday — the first official day the unwashed masses get a crack at it. If nothing else, the extra space will at least thin out the herds of tourists who flood the Art Institute every day, keeping the locals out of the facility that is partially funded with their tax dollars (“Locals Day,” anyone?). I will go. I will acknowledge the splendor of it all. I will mark it off my list of things to do in Chicago.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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