Art-world denizens may think of New York as the center of it all, but Chicago has historical caché: Picasso's works first landed on these shores at the Art Institute of Chicago (the second-largest museum in the country), Art Deco enjoyed its heyday in the Second City's architecture, and this season the metropolis's art scene is having a moment with the return of EXPO CHICAGO. While in town for the fair, these are a few perennial landmarks—and art-centric neighborhoods—that you should be sure to take in. After all, the city has a lot to offer the artful traveler.
Named for the "loop" formation that Chicago's elevated trains make around the area, this neighborhood acts as the city's cultural hub. Museums, the busy expanse of Michigan Avenue, and mainstays of architecture define the area, as well as brand-name shopping and tourist attractions. Take an architecture tour down the Chicago River, or check out Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate (aka "The Bean") in Millennium Park after checking out these Loop art must-sees.
Art Institute of Chicago
This world-class museum is perhaps best known for its famed Impressionist collection, but it also has impressive holdings in contemporary art as well. Founded in 1879, it has long been the jewel in the crown of the Chicago art world. The first iteration of the Armory Show had its only American touring site at the venerable institution, and the museum was the first to exhibit the works of artists such as Constantin Brâncusi, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Today, the Renzo Piano–designed modern wing, completed in 2009, hosts the contemporary art collection as well as boasting fabulous architecture—complete with a bridge that will take visitors all the way into Millennium Park.
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Founded in 1945, the MCA Chicago “documents contemporary visual culture through painting, sculpture, photography, video and film, and performance,” at its central Chicago Loop location. Originally a kunsthalle, the museum has evolved into a collecting institution with vast holdings in postwar art, and has given historic exhibitions to artists including Frida Kahlo, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Lorna Simpson.
With cheaper rents than the ritzier Loop, the West Loop has become home to a wide array of new cultural hotspots. Restaurants have quickly moved into the old Meatpacking District and established national acclaim, such as the Girl and the Goat, the Publican, Moto, and Next, Grant Achatz's follow-up restaurant to his award-winning Alinea.
Andrew Rafacz Gallery
Founded in 2004, the gallery initially called itself Bucket Rider Gallery, and now represents emerging and mid-career artists such as Jason Lazarus and Zachary Buchner. Its location at W. 835 Washington plays host to a number of other galleries, for a one-stop art-world destination.
The West Loop gallery has two locations in the neighborhood, as well as a Berlin outpost, with beginnings in Chicago going back to 1998. Kavi Gupta, the gallery's namesake dealer, was a former investment banker who realized his real aspirations lay in the art world. Today the gallery represents artists from Curtis Mann to James Krone to Scott Reeder.
Dedicated to arts of the Americas, THE MISSION devotes exhibitions to local, national, and international contemporary artists. It also hosts THE SUB-MISSION in its basement, a space for installations by Chicago artists.
This hip neighborhood plays host to a lively restaurant, bar, and shopping scene, becoming a key cultural destination over the last 15 years. Get a top-notch cocktail at the Violet Hour, or go the dive route with Danny’s. Milwaukee is the heartbeat of the area, with a packed nightlife scene on the weekends.
Corbett vs. Dempsey
Corbett vs. Dempsey opened on the ever-hip North Ashland Avenue in September 2004. The gallery specializes in Chicago-based artists making paintings, sculptures and works on paper, particularly in the years 1940 to 1980. Up now is "Party Cut," a solo show by Los Angeles artist Rebecca Morris. The gallery also has a record store and hosts a variety of music events.
Rhona Hoffman Gallery
A major player in the Chicago art scene, the gallery originally was founded as Young Hoffman Gallery in 1976, then broke off on its own in 1983. The gallery bills itself as one of the first to offer exhibitions to women artists such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer.
RIVER NORTH/GOLD COAST
Just north of the Chicago River is the home of Chicago's main gallery district, which hosts hundreds of galleries in a very high concentration. Think the Chelsea of the Midwest. The district mainly runs along Chicago, Superior, and Huron Streets between Lasalle and Orleans, making it an easily accessible emporium for art buffs. The area also boasts a strong design influence, with shops and showrooms selling cutting-edge furniture. The historic Gold Coast neighborhood has some of Chicago's oldest buildings, now mixed with luxury high-rises, as well as high-end shopping and dining.
Roy Boyd Gallery
Having recently had its 40-year anniversary, this gallery has serious Chicago art cred. Its key focus is abstraction, in paintings, works on paper, and sculpture.
Catherine Edelman Gallery
Catherine Edelman Gallery opened in 1987, focusing on exhibitions in photography. The gallery also has an online presence with "The Chicago Project," "for new and established photographers in the Chicago area who we feel deserve recognition," according to the site.
Richard Gray Gallery
Widely considered one of the most important players in the Chicago art scene, Richard Gray Gallery has been known for its high quality contemporary art since 1963. The gallery represents a diverse group of artists, which includes David Hockney and Rashid Johnson, and its focus on important movements in contemporary art continues to be influential.
Valerie Carberry Gallery
Located in the John Hancock Center, Carberry specializes in abstraction of the 1930s and '40s and modern sculpture. The gallery was founded in 2002 and deals in postwar art as well as the work of mid-career contemporary artists.