Institutional Response to Chicago’s Public Art Crisis Reminds Us That Citizens Must Fight for Cultural Welfare

Alexander Calder's Universe being deinstalled from the Willis Tower lobby early last week. Image courtesy of Willis Tower Mgmt. A couple of weeks ago, I reported on Chicago’s emerging public art crisis. In that article, I cautioned against alarmism and optimism in equal measure, advice that still applies. I also noted that there’s not much a concerned citizen can do under the given circumstances, other than keep an eye on the way the situation at hand develops. Anyone familiar with the preservation movement is aware of the vagaries of where exactly responsibility lies in fighting to save a structure. Not-for-profit groups like Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois often seem to shoulder most of the burden, sometimes with support from particularly vocal individuals, who are most often architects or parties working in architecturally-adjacent industries. Now and again, you’ll even get a lawyer. Though one might anticipate that the city’s universities and museums would consider the welfare of Chicago’s built environment a matter warranting their concern, our cultural institutions and their affiliated educational institutions have maintained a somewhat conspicuous distance from the issue, historically speaking. While the reasons for this lack of engagement are, I’m sure, manyfold, it does well to remember that recognizing architecture for its aesthetic integrity is a relatively modern concept, at least in the United States. Certainly in Chicago. Given the newly antecedent risk to public art, however, it’s not quite as easy for these institutions to justify turning a blind eye to the issue of preservation. Or, at least, that’s what one would like to think. In an effort to find out, I contacted representatives from some of the city's most venerated museums and art schools to see if vocalized opposition or intervention could be expected. A representative from Columbia College Chicago informed me that “the college currently has no plans to take action,” a refreshingly straightforward, if unfortunate, answer. The Art Institute of Chicago’s representative declined to comment (a disappointment, considering the Art Institute bears an intrinsic connection to the two of the works at risk, housing in their permanent collection the maquettes for Monument with Standing Beast and Flamingo). The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s representative, however, provided me with the ambiguous assurance that “there are several people at SAIC that would love to talk about public art at some point,” but that, “unfortunately, the timing just hasn’t worked out.” She did, however, feel the timing was right to attach a press release detailing SAIC’s involvement in Milan Design Week, (“in case it might be of interest”) and went so far as to say she'd "love to keep in touch.” Despite that warm (and I’m sure, sincere) sign-off, my follow-up emails have gone unanswered. The entirety of the public relations department at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, on the other hand, elected to simply ignore my inquiries altogether. It would appear, then, that the city’s relevant museums and institutes of higher education cannot be counted on to stand up for public art, much less take action to prevent its removal from the public sphere. As simultaneously disappointing and unsurprising as this may be--especially in light of the fact that Universe has been placed in storage, and Monument With Standing Beast has appeared alongside the Thompson Center on yet another most endangered list--it may serve us best to take this as a reminder that we, as private citizens, are ultimately the ones who will have to fight for Chicago’s cultural welfare.
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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.