In Chicago, engaging with art doesn’t require entering a museum. A fabulous fun and free activity for the family? Checking out the many public sculptures that enliven the city’s spectacular skyline. And, yes, you’ll want to take a selfie in the Chicago Bean.
Public Art in Chicago
In Chicago, world class museums abound. But, thanks to the presence of more than 7,000 pieces of public art displayed throughout the city, Chicagoans and tourists alike can interact with creativity on a daily basis just by walking around the city. Even better for kids, many of the sculptures are made for climbing!
For some exercise and a dose of culture, hop on the EL, Chicago’s elevated public transit line and embark on a DIY art tour. Or, if you prefer a more structured experience, join one of the free tours offered at various times throughout the city.
History of Public Art in Chicago
Backstory: in 1967, Mayor Richard J. Daley commissioned a monumental Picasso sculpture to preside over the government space that is now called Daley Plaza. The cubist piece was groundbreaking in size and the fact that it was a modernist artwork, not a historical figure.
After some controversy, the Picasso sculpture became a city landmark—and a draw for families with kids who needed to burn off some energy. The giant structure becomes a makeshift slide for kids while their parents watch from the nearby benches.
This unique structure soon inspired more large-scale commissions to enhance the city’s architecture. Chicago is now recognized as a leader in public art and boasts masterpieces from celebrated artists including Miro, Marc Chagall, Alexander Calder, Dubuffet and Claes Oldenberg. Visiting them is free to everyone and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Chicago Bean at Millennium Park
The Bean, Anish Kapoor’s giant stainless steel orb (one of the largest sculptures in the world), is actually called Cloud Gate. By any name, it attracts tourists in droves. The draw? From its perch in Millennium Park, the shimmering artwork offers a 3D reflection of the Chicago skyline. It’s also interactive. People can walk inside of the piece and view themselves superimposed upon Chicago architecture. The Chicago Bean has become the symbol of Chicago—and the place to take that selfie.
Crown Fountain at Millennium Park
This artistic creation is best experienced in warmer weather. That’s because artist Jaume Plensa’s black granite reflecting pool banked between two 50-foot towers is true interactive art. Part video installation, part play area, kids love to splash in the fountain. Meanwhile, images of Chicagoans photographed by students from the School of the Art Institute flash on screen. At specific moments, water appears to playfully spew from their mouths.
Picasso Sculpture at Daley Plaza
Since the 60s were all about change, Mayor Richard J. Daley decided to try something novel. He commissioned iconic artist Pablo Picasso to create a massive sculpture for the Chicago Loop. It sits in front of the Daley Center at Washington and Dearborn streets. The abstract piece was a hit. But nobody knows what the cubist creation actually represents— the artist’s dog? a horse’s head? a woman? Picasso refused payment and never explained exactly what the sculpture means. No matter to the kids, who love to climb up and slide down the sculpture.
TravelingMom Tip: If you’re visiting at the height of summer, be careful. The metal Picasso sculpture can get very hot. Check it out before the kids climb aboard.
Dubuffet: Monument with Standing Beast
With the popularity of graffiti street art, this decades-old 3D sculpture still feels fresh and inviting. Inspired by “Art Brut,” or outsider art, Dubuffet’s passion for urban graffiti is evident in this massive multi-dimensional fiber glass piece designed to feel like a “drawing that extends into space.” Children love walking inside the structure to explore what they describe as “Snoopy in a blender.” Find the Dubuffet standing in front of the Thompson Center, the State of Illinois office building at Randolph and Clark streets.
Alexander Calder’s Flamingo Sculpture
This bright, exotic looking “stabile” in Federal Center Plaza at Dearborn and Adams is quite a contrast to the surrounding Bauhaus-style office buildings. That was the plan. The visual clash of the orange/pink curvilinear sculpture with Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe’s super serious glass and steel structures successfully anchors the office plaza
AGORA by Magdalena Abakanowicz
The most recent addition to Chicago is a series of cast iron headless, armless torsos on the South end of Grant Park at Roosevelt Road and Michigan Avenue. Clocking in at nine feet, the scale of the installation is monumental. The torsos appear to be walking in every direction. Some feel the Agora (which means “meeting place” in Greek) represents our fast-paced modern life. Others feel it represents the role of immigrants in Chicago. Kids can run in and around the piece while parents discuss its symbolism.
About the author
This post was written by Amy Tara Koch. She is an author, journalist and television personality. Koch contributes to Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Travel + Leisure, Men’s Journal and Food & Wine. She has appeared on Today, Access Hollywood, Fox & Friends, CBS Early Show and Steve Harvey. Her first book, BUMP IT UP (2010) has retained its position as the gold standard in pregnancy style. She is currently working on her second book, a memoir.
Among her recent posts for Travel + Leisure: