The Run Down

In a new addition to our “Known/Unknown” series, we’re heading to Michigan Avenue to pair a Chicago landmark with an overlooked place nearby. The first stop is to a grand art institution flanked by iconic bronze lions. Here, masterpieces await. But the exploration doesn't end there. After, you'll walk down the street and visit another 3-story museum delving into the world of contemporary photography and examine a diverse collection of thousands of works from artists around the globe.

1. Visit @ Art Institute of Chicago

2. Visit @ Museum of Contemporary Photography

1. Art Institute of Chicago
(“The Known”)

We start with the renowned Art Institute of Chicago. Whether it’s friends coming to town or you just haven’t been here for awhile, both are good excuses to pay a visit.

This is the home of celebrated masterpieces like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies,” Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom,” Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Sky Above Clouds IV.”

Few cities in the world can boast this level of art. These iconic works, merely a fraction of the vast collection within the Institute’s walls, represent just a portion of the Art Institute’s ever-changing tableau of exhibits.

You’ll know you’re at the right place when you find yourself standing in front of a massive Beaux-Arts building guarded by life-size lions — they are to the Art Institute what the steps are to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A gaggle of art students sit on the steps and with sketchbooks in hand, attempt to capture the formidable lions on paper. Across from them are a pair of tourists huddled together. One holds a city map, the other a worn guidebook, their heads bent together tracing their next spot.

And all the while, the watchful stone lions, mounted in 1894 after being completed by Edward and Laura Kemeys,  sit silent and enduring having seen countless scenes like this – moments of mundane magic on the steps of the Art Institute.

Once you’ve spent enough time with the majestic beasts, head inside, where you’ll either buy your ticket or get your online reservation scanned.

Given the size of the museum (it’s home to nearly 300,000 works of art, a capacity that increased by 30 percent when the Modern Wing opened in 2009), it’s worth grabbing a pamphlet and choosing what exhibits to hit.

If time is of the essence, must-sees include the Impressionism wing, located just up the stairs off the main entrance; the Thorne Miniature Room, which features a series of 68 intricate rooms on a scale of 1:12; and the Modern Wing, where you’ll view modern European painting and sculpture, contemporary art, architecture and design, and photography.   

A few things to note ahead of your visit:

– The museum is closed Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; during the three extra hours each week, Illinois residents can visit for free.

– There are two places to grab food/snacks. But a better option might to bring your own food and eat it in the designated areas. Alternatively, the museum allows for re-entry, so grab a bite to outside and come back.

– If you’re looking for a food recommendation, right across the street is Russian Tea Time, a Ukrainian-founded restaurant that does a decadent afternoon tea and snack service. We featured that in this guide.

2. Museum of Contemporary Photography
(“The Unknown”)

Although the Art Institute has a rotating photography exhibit, the Museum of Contemporary Photography is the destination for viewing moments frozen in time.

MoCP, as it’s referred to for short, is located just half a mile south on Michigan Avenue. What sets this museum apart is it’s operated by Columbia College Chicago. So by nature, it is a college art museum, but its reach extends far beyond local classrooms.

And the added beauty of it is it’s free. One way that’s made possible is an initiative to sell fine prints created specifically for the museum by “some of the most innovative photographers working today.” Prints by more than 70 artists are for sale online, each running $400.

Since MoCP’s founding nearly five decades ago, in 1976, curators have built a collection of more than 16,800 works by over 1,500 artists, establishing the institute as an international hub for photography. But what’s interesting is only a fragment of the agglomeration is on display; instead, the collection is fully digitized and searchable online.

One noteworthy exhibit is the Midwest Photographers Project, a revolving collection of portfolios created by both established and emerging artists from the region. Some portfolios are housed in the Print Study Room but all can be found on the museum’s website.

This leaves a lot of room for movement in the physical three-floor space. The most recent exhibition has been a collection of photographs and digital videos exploring “how music changes in form and interpretation as it moves across time, bodies, and place.”

You might wonder: If thousands of photographs live online, and only a few are on display, why visit? Besides being a free resource for engaging with art, it’s an interesting study to stop by, especially after the Art Institute, and sit with the thought-provoking exhibit. If you’re visiting with others, sometimes their commentary on the display is half the fun.