Public Art in Chicago

Public art, meaning artwork located in public places, can be divided into two basic types: works typically created by individual artists, which are commissioned, purchased, or given as gifts; and works that have their origins as community projects. Chicago is fortunate to have a considerable collection of both.

One of the early pieces of commissioned public art in Chicago is the Lorado Taft sculpture titled Fountain of Time (1922). Located on the western edge of the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park, the impressive concrete structure consists of one hundred figures marching past Father Time. The piece was created to celebrate one hundred years of peace between the United States and Great Britain.

In the downtown area, several works by internationally known artists have become familiar landmarks over the past few decades. Pablo Picasso’s untitled immense steel sculpture situated in the Daley Center has continued to mystify passersby long after its dedication (1967). An abstract work by Spanish artist Joan Miró, titled The Sun, the Moon and One Star (1981), is across the street from “The Picasso.” Alexander Calder’s Flamingo (1974), an imposing orange-red steel sculpture, stands in the Federal Center Plaza at Dearborn and Adams. Four Seasons (1974), a four-sided pastel mosaic by Marc Chagall, beautifies the bank plaza near the corner of Dearborn and Madison. Jean Dubuffet’s striking Monument with Standing Beast (1984) is located at the State of Illinois Center on Randolph. As these sculptures went up, the Chicago Public Art Program was developed to continue providing city residents with high-quality public art.

Along Michigan Avenue, east of these Loop structures, sits Millennium Park. This park, which officially opened in 2004, is an important Chicago venue for concerts, gardens, and public art. One of its popular sculptures is Cloud Gate, nicknamed “The Bean” by the city’s residents because of its curved shape. Anish Kapoor completed the shiny, three story sculpture in 2005. Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain (2004), at the southwest corner of the park, consists of two glass-block towers on either side of a reflecting pool. Each tower displays a close-up clip of a face, randomly selected from among hundreds of videos. At various intervals, the faces “spit” water out into the pool, delighting waders and watchers alike. Unlike the earlier works, which are meant to be viewed as one would view static museum pieces, these two art pieces in Millennium Park invite public interaction.

Another contemporary public art piece is the sculptural installation Agora (2006), by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. This installation in Grant Park comprises 106 headless, armless, nine-foot tall figures cast in iron, frozen in various walking stances. For many visitors, the towering human shapes have a disquieting yet profound effect.

Chicago ranks as one of the most prolific cities for producing community-based public art. In fact, Chicago is often associated with the beginnings of the nationwide grass-roots movement in which artists, community leaders, arts organizations, and residents work toward the common goal of creating meaningful, beautiful, and lasting objects within an urban setting. The movement began in the late 1960s with murals that reflected the political, social, and cultural upheavals taking place during that time. Community art projects soon grew in number and took on a variety of forms, such as mosaics, sculpture, benches, windows, and space designs. Today, seeing art on the streets of Chicago has become so familiar that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t part of our landscape.

The Chicago Public Art Group (CPAG) has played a key role in the evolution of community art efforts. For decades, CPAG has provided schools, agencies, and organizations with trained artist-leaders who learn to manage projects and communicate with neighborhood residents while carrying out plans for permanent, safe, and meaningful public landmarks.

One CPAG project, Water Marks(1998), is recognized as one of the nation’s largest and most admired community artworks. Situated in Gateway Park at the entrance to Navy Pier, it consists of four mosaic benches positioned in a landscape of pathways that recreates the shape of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The canal, which linked Lake Michigan to the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, played a historical role in the development of the city’s—and the country’s—commerce and transportation. Four years in the making, the project represents a monumental collaboration of talent and effort on the part of artists, landscape architects, engineers, historians, and residents.