Public Art History at the Chicago Cultural Center

As Chicago enters into its Year of Public Art  it seems necessary to take the time to look back on the works that helped to secure the cultural acclaim this city receives today. The recently mounted exhibition The Pride & Perils of Chicago’s Public Art at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St.) does so in a way that not only elucidates what makes these seminal works lynchpins in the city's cultural identity, but traces their history back to its earliest considerations.

unnamed (1)The Waubansee Stone Image Courtesy of the Office of the Cultural Historian of the City of Chicago

Here are the works of indeterminate origin, the works of the unsung artists of architecture, the works from before this city was a city. And here, too, are the works that incited controversy in their time, and with them the stories of those whose willingness to fight for their art laid the groundwork for so much of what has come to follow. Here, the equalizing power of the civic stage is brought to the forefront; seldom is the exhibition that sees Fritz Albert and Frederick Almenraeder named alongside the likes of Pablo Picasso and Lorado Taft.

unnamed-2Sculpture from the facade of the Schiller Building (Garrick Theatre) Image Courtesy of the Office of the Cultural Historian of the City of Chicago

The sheer intensity of these concerns proves to be enough to compensates for the exhibition's brevity, installed within the length of an unassuming corridor known as the Landmark Gallery on the building's ground floor. The challenge of such a space has been deftly met by curator Tim Samuelson, as, remarkably, the flow of pedestrians through this heavily-trafficked area does not impede upon the viewing experience, and viewers lingering in the exhibition are not an impediment to pedestrians.  It is within this unique structural context that certain parallels are allowed to emerge--it becomes impossible to look at the rough-hewn and unknowable face of the Waubansee Stone and not see reflected back in it the equally unknowable and fixed gaze of the Picasso (that these two works serve to bookend the exhibition's time line is not to be dismissed). It suddenly isn't possible to consider the bust of the unidentified gentleman salvaged from the facade of the the Schiller Building (Garrick Theatre) without thinking of the impassioned effort that was made to save the unquestionably significant but ultimately ill-fated structure, and then, upon taking in the spectacle of the Reebie Brothers Storage Warehouse in all its Egyptian glory, not pause for a moment to contemplate what this city lays to waste and what it allows to survive.

14876966513_4106400c12_b (1) Reebie Brothers Fireproof Storage Warehouse (2325 N. Clark St.) Image courtesy of the reporter

This is, then, one of those exceedingly rare exhibitions that manages to pose more questions than it ventures to answer. In doing so, it asks us to accept that the preconceived notions we carry forward--of what constitutes public art, civic art, contemporary art as a whole--may call for reassessment. There could not be a more fitting time than now to take heed.   The Pride & Perils of Chicago’s Public Art is on view at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington Street) through July 30th, 2017. Admission is FREE. Mon-Thurs: 9am-7pm, Fri-Sat:9am-6pm, Sun: 10am-6pm. For more information, see the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE).
Picture of the author
Bianca Bova

Bianca Bova is a Chicago-based curator. She has worked with national and international contemporary arts organizations including Gunder Exhibitions, SiTE:LAB, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and EXPO Chicago.