Best Chicago Museum Exhibits Of 2019
The biggest museum news of 2019 didn’t come in the galleries, but over the front door: A Chicago billionaire donated $125 million to get a South Side institution renamed the Kenneth C. Griffin Museum of Science and Industry.
The Art Institute kept its original name but was busy in 2019, too, announcing a campus makeover, canceling an indigenous pottery exhibition at the last minute over cultural sensitivity concerns, and even hosting a rock festival.
Theater producers bet big — and lost — on a standalone museum exhibition about an American founding father / star of musical theater, but despite its inability to draw crowds “Hamilton: The Exhibition” still ranks highly (very highly) on my best shows of the year list, below.
Leadership changes were either announced or enacted at top cultural institutions including the Field Museum, Terra Foundation for American Art, Newberry Library, MacArthur Foundation and Renaissance Society.
But the most pleasure, the most insight and the most ambition were on display, as always, in the galleries. In Chicago, it is a treat and a challenge to make this list every year because our exhibition cup not only runneth over, it spilleth off the edge of the table. Here are my 10 favorite new or new-to-Chicago museum shows from 2019:
For pure, all-ages delight, it was tough to top these two collections of expertly shot, beautifully printed images of nature doing what nature does. Whether a lion peeking through reeds or walruses looking noble against the elements, “Thomas D. Mangelsen – A Life in the Wild” at the Notebaert” and the British import “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” still running at the Field offer(ed) photos to linger over and a chance to reflect on what we are losing in our ongoing abuse of the planet. As a bonus, the exhibits told us how these shooters are able to capture such breathtaking pictures.
The Michigan Avenue art temple’s first big look at Edouard Manet in 50 years made the case for the Parisian master’s oft-dismissed later works. Rather than being mere confections, they “demonstrate his fierce embrace of beauty and pleasure in the teeth of acute physical suffering,” argued the catalog. Fittingly, the show premiered in spring.
Chicago revisited one of its grand moments of kitsch in the little park around the Water Tower. Whatever grumpiness I had over the original “Cows on Parade,” fiberglass cows painted by artists with varying degrees of craft and cleverness, when they took over downtown Chicago 20 years ago, seeing a selection of them brought out of retirement to mark the anniversary brought a grin-inducing jolt of nostalgia. But, please, please, let’s agree not to paint any more molded plastic figures.
This great collector of Egyptian and other ancient near Eastern artifacts on the University of Chicago campus was an inspiration for the Indiana Jones character. It’s also a mini-British Museum in the heart of Hyde Park. Thanks to a thoughtful multimillion-dollar reimagining for its milestone anniversary, it’s now more broadly accessible — without sacrificing the scholarly underpinnings. The OI’s light is no longer hiding under a sarcophagus.
The North Shore horticultural destination finally got into the holiday lights game this year, joining the big zoos and the Morton Arboretum. Its series of artful illumination set pieces along a mile-long path surprise and delight and give your (my) lazy carcass a reason to quit the couch in wintertime. But the best of all the “Lightscape” displays needs no plug: Scores of flickering firepots arrayed in the Rose Garden speak to the pagan still lurking in all of us.
Far more ambitious than what you typically find in even the best university museums, this Northwestern museum exhibition told the story of the richest man ever to walk the Earth, the 14th-century Mali king Mansa Musa, and of a rich African culture largely written out of history. Ancient pottery fragments, fully realized metal works and early maps and money helped tell an extraordinary, corrective story.
As important as he has been to art history, Andy Warhol’s frosty, arms-length takes on popular culture are hard to love. This first big Warhol retrospective in 50 years, though, brings you closer to Andy the man while the 400 works on display, at minimum, make a coherent case for his genius and prescience in making art bow to commerce and vice-versa.
It is probably true now that no one will ever again spend $13 million to make and mount such a fine, full, visually imaginative American history exhibition. It is certainly true that if they do, they won’t maroon it in a temporary building way out on Northerly Island, a spot more accessible to migratory birds than to tourists and other fans of the “Hamilton!” musical. But even as it only lasted four months before the curtain crashed down, this Quixotic project from the musical’s makers was a great success in artistic terms. Never before has early 1800s monetary policy been made so engaging.
Eight other favorites from 2019: “LaToya Ruby Frazier: The Last Cruze” at the Renaissance Society; “Imagine the Moon” at Adler Planetarium; “A Tale of Today: Yinka Shonibare CBE” at Driehaus Museum; “Tara Donovan: Fieldwork” at Smart Museum of Art; “Tetsuya Ishida: Self-Portrait of Other” and “About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art,” both at Wrightwood 659; “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” at the Art Institute; and “Purchased Lives” at Illinois Holocaust Museum.
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