The Best Museums in Chicago, IL – My Top Picks

 

Category

The Arts

Destination

Chicago

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Chicago has some of the best museums of any city in the world. When in town make sure to leave time to explore these great institutions:

The Art Institute of Chicago: One of the true treasures of Chicago, this is one of the top encyclopedic museums in the US with great collections in many areas including textiles, prints and drawings, photography, European decorative arts and even architecture. Its new Modern Wing, designed by architect Renzo Piano, is really outstanding. The AIC is known for its outstanding French Impressionism collection with works by all of the major artists. I  went to a Monet show at the museum  in 2020 and learned that the Art Institute owns 33 paintings and 13 drawings by Claude Monet, making it the largest collection of his works outside of Paris.

One of the masterpieces, not to be missed, is Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of  la Grand Jatte which will only be seen in Chicago and will not be allowed to travel. Gustav Caillebot’s Rainy Day is also a must for your list along with the famous Chagall windows. 111. S. Michigan.

The Art Institute of Chicago

 

The Modern Wing The Art Institute of Chicago

 

The Art Institute of Chicago

Now on view since December 2015 is the largest gift of art in the museum’s history. The New Contemporary, located on the second floor of the Modern Wing, was a gift by Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson. It features 44 works by such artists as Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Cy Twombly. It is an outstanding addition to the overall collection and should not be missed.

The Art Institute of Chicago

 

The Art Institute of Chicago

A bit of history, the construction of the Art Institute building began in 1891 as the hall for the World’s congresses for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. After the fair the galleries were filled with artworks and reproductions that included Old Master paintings, sculpture, textiles, photography and antiquities acquired or loaned by local collections. The Art Institute opened its doors on December 8, 1893.

The Art Institute of Chicago

 

The Art Institute of Chicago

The National Museum of Mexican Art: One of the top cultural institutions in the city with an emphasis on Mexican art and folk art. It celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 2012. Check out their current exhibitions. In the Fall, they always have great altars for Day of the Dead and often bring in Mexican folk artists for special markets and demonstrations.

The National Museum of Mexican Art

Museum of Contemporary Art: Just south and east of Water Tower Place is the Museum of Contemporary Art. It offers exhibitions of contemporary art and does offer a series of programs including musical performances throughout the year. Their museum store is well-worth the trip by itself. 220 E. Chicago Ave.

Museum of Contemporary Art

 

The Museum of Contemporary Art

 

Museum of Contemporary Art – Nick Cave

 

Museum of Contemporary Art – Calder

A wonderful new museum that recently opened in Lincoln Park is Wrightwood 659. I lived and worked in that neighborhood for almost 40 years. I have always loved the Eychaner Lee House designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando in 1998 in his signature concrete, steel, and glass style. Fred Eychaner, the owner, is President of Alphawood Foundation and is known for his philanthropy in the city including arts institutions, public spaces and historic preservation. Very quietly Eychaner and Dan Whittaker, created this exhibition space next to Eychaner’s home. They had Tadao Ando create the space in a former four-story prewar, residential apartment building at 659 W. Wrightwood just west of Clark St. Ando removed the entire interior and filled it with steel and reinforced concrete.

It is a wonderful, small exhibition space that will be very popular among art lovers in the city.  According to the New York Times, “Wrightwood 659 does not possess a collection and does not intend to develop one. Its aim is to host alternating exhibitions focused on architecture and design and socially engaged art.” I enjoyed a very creative Ai Weiwei exhibition and also a show dedicated to Ando and architect Le Corbusier. My most recent show was Chryssa & New York featuring her early works along with her sculptures made up metal and neon. You can also see some of the drawings by Tadao Ando for some of his buildings.

I recently went back and enjoyed an exhibition on two lost works of famed architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Make sure to check their website and book your reservations in advance. Currently they are open on Friday and Saturday.

Wrightwood 659

 

Wrightwood 659

 

Wrightwood 659

 

Wrightwood 659

 

Wrightwood 659 – Chryssa & New York

 

Wrightwood 659 – Tadao Ando

Driehaus Museum: This is a museum, located in the historic Samuel M. Nickerson mansion dating from America’s Guilded Age in the 19th century, that is a perfect place if you like antiques and the decorative arts. It is particularly wonderful during the holidays when it is totally decorated for Christmas. It is located at 40 E. Erie, just west of Michigan Ave.

Driehaus Museum

The historic The Newberry Library is an independent research library, specializing in the humanities and located on Washington Square. It has been free and open to the public since 1887. They do have temporary exhibitions that you should consider. I enjoyed their excellent show, Pictures from an Exposition, Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair.

The  Newberry Library has an archive of many of the photographs, recordings and videos of the famed Mister Kelly’s nightclub which existed from 1953 to 1975.  Their recent exhibition in 2024, A Night at Mr. Kelly’s was excellent

The first floor was recently renovated. They also have a number of classes, lectures and events, so check out their website for details  60 W. Walton.

The Newberry Library

 

The Newberry Library

 

The Newberry Library

 

Mr Kelly’s – Newberry Library Archive

 

Mr Kelly’s – Newberry Library Archive – Photograph by Vivian Maier

I recently went to the American Writers Museum at 180 N. Michigan Ave. Opened in May, 2017, it is a museum, inspired by the Dublin Writers Museum, that has a mission to educate the public about American writers, past and present.  There are excellent exhibitions to explore.

American Writers Museum

 

American Writers Museum

Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art: At 2320 W. Chicago Ave., this is a small museum founded in 1971, that features a permanent collection as well as temporary exhibitions. The permanent collection features paintings, prints and sculptures by Ukrainian and other international artists. The temporary exhibitions focus on artist retrospectives, group and collective shows and concept and theme topics like Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy.

Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art

Chicago History Museum: A great small museum showcasing the history of Chicago. It also has photography exhibitions and fashion exhibitions at various times. 1601 N. Clark.

The Chicago History Museum

Others to explore include The Field Museum, The Museum of Science and Industry, The Adler Planetarium and The Shedd Aquarium.

There are some excellent university art museums to explore when you are in town.

DePaul Art Museum: Recently relocated to a new building at 925 W. Fullerton, in Lincoln Park, this is a great small museum offering special exhibitions featuring contemporary artists and works from its growing permanent collection.

LUMA/Loyola University Museum of Art: A good, small art museum with a permanent collection as well as rotating exhibitions. You might stop in a see what is being featured. The permanent collections feature European art from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. It is located at 820 N. Michigan.

I recently went back to see a photography exhibition featuring the photos of famed National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry. I am again impressed with his work and the videos telling his story and how he tells the stories of others.

Loyola University Museum of Art

 

Loyola University Museum of Art – Steve McCurry Icons

 

Loyola University Museum of Art – Steve McCurry Icons

Museum of Contemporary Photography/MoCP: Founded in 1976, as part of Columbia College, the MoCP is an excellent academic art museum dedicated to photography. It is a hub for research and dialogue amongst students, faculty and the broader community. The feature changing exhibitions as well as classes for the students. Check out their website for the calendar of exhibitions, lectures and other special events. I was back recently for a special event and tour, and was very impressed. They have a large archive of over 16,500 works.

The recently announced a $25 million capital campaign to renovate the museum and add larger exibition spaces, a dedicated education center along with an expanded temperature-controlled collection vault.  600 S. Michigan.

MoCP

 

MoCP

 

MoCP

In Evanston, there is the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. 40 Arts Circle Dr.

Mary and Leigh Block Art Museum

While in Hyde Park, at the University of Chicago, you can explore The Smart Museum of Art, The Renaissance Society for contemporary art and Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures. Formerly The Oriental Institute, this important museum is world-renowned for the history, art and archaeology of the ancient Near East. It has a wonderful permanent collection with galleries devoted to West Asia and North Africa, including ancient Egypt, Nubia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia and the ancient site of Megiddo. There are special exhibitions as well. 1155 E. 58th St.

 

Smart Museum

 

Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures

Architecture enthusiasts should not miss Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House on the University of Chicago campus.

The Robie House

If in the area, check out the art exhibitions of the Spertus Institute at 610 S. Michigan and the temporary exhibitions at the Arts Club of Chicago at 201 E. Ontario, a block east of Michigan Ave. The Calder sculpture and the Mies van de Rohe staircase are worth the visit in itself.

Spertus Institute

 

Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies:

 

The Arts Club of Chicago

I recently went to see a special exhibit at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Located at 756 Milwaukee Ave., this small institution promotes the public awareness, understanding and appreciation of intuitive and outsider art, though education programs, exhibitions and special events. I remember well the homeless Lee Godie selling her paintings on the Michigan Ave. bridge during my first years in Chicago. Today her works are in many private collections in the city and were featured in the exhibition that I saw. You can see works from the permanent collection as well as in special exhibitions. I highly recommend the experience.

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art

Started as a popup museum, the wndr Museum, is now a permanent fixture in Chicago’s West Loop. It is located on the first floor of a three-story red brick commercial building, and open Wednesday through Sunday. Visitors can either buy tickets for a particular time slot online or pay by credit card at the entrance. The shows or chapters combine art with technology. So you can see exhibition with sounds, light and more. I loved my first visit after it first opened. 1130 W. Monroe.

wndr Museum

 

wndr Museum

Chicago Cultural Center: In a building with a wonderful Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass dome, this is home to many free concerts, performances and art exhibits throughout the year. I was recently back to see the Tiffany dome again and enjoyed an exhibition on mural artists. There is also a nice boutique featuring art and crafts by Chicago artists.

Chicago Cultural Center

 

Chicago Cultural Center

 

Chicago Cultural Center

Design Museum of Chicago: Across the street from the Chicago Cultural Center is the Design Museum of Chicago at 72 E. Randolph St. This is a small museum with a mission to inspire, educate foster innovation through design. “We define design broadly, from architecture to street art, from choreography to urban planning. Design is more than a powerful source of inspiration. It is an integral tool that can help to connect communities and create equity. Through free, short-term exhibitions, engaging public programming, and robust partnerships with other arts, academic, and non-profit organizations, the Design Museum contextualizes and humanizes design’s influence in everyday life.”

It is free and open to the public daily.

Design Museum of Chicago

 

Design Museum of Chicago