The Five Best Art Museums in Chicago

America's second city does not take a backseat to anyone in the art world.

Hopper Editors - Oct. 26, 2017

Both inside the brilliant masonry-clad buildings and splashed over particular exteriors is the ever pervasive visual art that has helped make Chicago a titan in the art world. Its diversity of population, strong American roots and eagerness to adopt new styles gives a richness to its many art galleries and museums. The results? Claire Zeisler’s fiber sculptures, the Chicago Imagists, the Art Institute-commissioned American Gothic now an important touchstone of American art and pop culture, and the murals unfurled and daubed over concrete facades in the colorful Pilsen neighborhood. For an art explorer, Chicago is a fever dream, a dizzying wander through various mediums and eras across all corners of the city. With a little inspiration, the question won’t be where to go, but when.

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National Museum of Mexican Art uncovers another world of color

Located in the Pilsen neighborhood, the beating heart of Chicago’s Mexican community, is the free and hugely engaging National Museum of Mexican Art. Over 3,000 years of art are covered, truly showcasing the diversity of Mexican, Latino and Chicano culture. One of the countries largest Mexican art collections, the museum currently houses 7,000 pieces from ancient Mexico to the present, and pieces are frequently circulating America and Mexico. Past exhibitions have focused on subjects like graffiti art and the Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), as well as specific artists like Pilar Acevedo.

Art Institute of Chicago is timeless

Established in 1879, the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the premier art museums in the United States. The massive collection encompasses more than 5,000 years of human expression around the world and contains more than 260,000 works of art including such more than 30 paintings by Claude Monet, important works by Renoir, Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (including his 1895 At the Moulin Rouge), and a remarkable collection of American art like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Grant Wood’s American Gothic (which was originally painted and submitted to a contest organized by the Institute!), and works by Roy Lichtenstein. An afternoon strolling the museum exposes visitors to early Japanese prints, French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, African American art that highlight the racial struggle through the ages, and more. Book an afternoon; book a lifetime, bring your glasses.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago is the new nowness

For an immersion into color and absolute nowness, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago might look like a large and simple monochromatic limestone and glass box flanked by concrete platforms from the outset, but it opens up to a world of high, high ceilings and white-washed walls splashed with color. Nobody walks through the MCA without snapping a pic of the graceful and utterly modern white staircase in the entrance, shaped kind of like a large almond-shaped eye or a teardrop that architects call an "ellipsoid." The collection reflects modern art collected from 1945 to the present with over 2,500 objects. That’s sculpture, painting, photography, installation, video and other hyper-present media.

Learn about the impact of war at the National Veterans Art Museum

One of the most moving museums in the world, the National Veteran’s Art Museum introduces visitors to the impact of war through the lens of the veteran’s artistic impulses. All of the art pieces are created by veterans from a wide range of American conflicts. What began as an initiative by a few Vietnam combat veterans turn into a much broader dialogue about war that encompasses over 2,500 works of art by 255 artists with a military background. What visitors get to observe is the generational struggle of military conflict, unique insight into the psychological impacts of war through the ages through paintings, photography, sculpture, poetry and music. One striking permanent exhibit was inspired by Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried; it’s a hands-on display of war artifacts donated by veterans. Visitors get to feel the weight of a flack jacket, touch field gear and see other pieces of war materials.

Up and comers live at the Monique Meloche Gallery

On the white walls of the airy and bright Monique Meloche Gallery in trendy Wicker Park is an assortment of art from emerging artists across all mediums. There’s abstract mixed media installations, sculpture art, photographs shedding light on the beauty and absurdity of everyday life, portraits of young women painted on newsprint to demonstrate the passage of time, and other such thought provoking images. All is up for sale, because art is usually always up for sale, but non-collectors are still welcome to a stroll around and admire post-modernity.

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