TheMART Looks to Become World’s Largest Canvas for theARTs – Is That a Good Thing? 

Photo by Brian Dooley

Merchandise Mart is something of a marvel. When it was completed in 1931, it wasn’t just the largest building in the world, taking up two city blocks and boasting over four million square feet of space – it was situated beautifully for transportation, commerce and shipping. Originally, it was the wonderland of Marshall Field, and he used it for all the things this massive Art Deco building was built to encompass: warehouse, skyscraper and department store. On its own, this colossus is a work of art, but city officials and Vornado, the company whose hands Merchandise Mart (now known as theMART officially) currently rests in, want to expand its artistic possibilities with a digital installation.

The idea is for an array of 34 top-of-the-line Christie Boxer projectors, each weighing about 160 pounds and capable of projecting with 30,000 lumens in 4K resolution, to be permanently installed on the riverfront side of the building, creating a 2.5-acre canvas that will, of course, be the largest such art display in the world, according to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. Right now, the idea is just that, as a proposal allowing for a 30-year license for the projector placement was only introduced a few days back, but if things go well, project developers hope the first artwork will be illuminated in October, with a plan to run the displays two hours a night, five nights a week for about 10 months out of each year.  

Lest you worry about the cost (and should you look up the projectors, which run about $109K a piece, you might), Vornado is planning on footing the initial bill, expected to roll in roundabout $8 million, as well as the $500,000 a year upkeep costs. A curatorial board will oversee it, and comprise city council members, representatives from “theMART” and members of Chicago’s art community. So far, not much is known about what types of art will be displayed, but the capabilities mean that almost anything is possible, since the projectors are capable of displaying digital photos as well, and at least according to the Tribune, could include children’s artworks or special holiday pieces. One thing that will NOT be appearing? Anything commercial. According to planners for Art on theMART, it will never be used “as a billboard” and so any sort of advertising or things that appear to advertise will be verboten. 

Art on theMART is being heavily hyped by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who sees it as another gem in the citywide art scene, in the vein of Cloud Gate and other well-known installations, but the jury’s out. I myself am a little bit ambivalent. I love the idea of art everywhere, and the allure of a giant canvas like the limestone façade of Merchandise Mart doesn’t fly over my head. Still, New Media Installations (NMIs) like this one often raise quite a debate–something we discussed earlier this year when the subject of a digital art installation on Merchandise Mart’s face was first raised.  It would certainly be a way make an artist’s work unmissable. On the other hand, though, architecture in itself is an art form, and in some ways it seems like the display could read almost garish, though the displays would only run for a few hours certain nights. I wonder, too, if the massive display will detract from the art of the skyline itself, as so many giant light displays do, and if, despite the cost being footed by theMART’s owners, the energy cost (including non-monetary considerations) will be even higher. Perhaps it’s the Chicago resistance to change and not something more practical, though. 

I reached out to Obscura Digital, who would create the display, as well as Vornado Realty, for more information on power draw, costs and who’s footing the bill, but as of press time have not heard back. We will update this story with more information if and when those questions are answered.

For now though, what are your thoughts? Does the benefit of visibility for Chicago artist’s works outweigh the potential cityscape change, and, despite the private funding, is it worth the energy cost? Or will this installation detract from the skyline, waste energy and draw attention away from the art of the city itself? Weigh in in the comments. 

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