The Art Institute of Chicago was founded as both a museum and school for the fine arts in 1879, a critical era in the history of Chicago as civic energies were devoted to rebuilding the metropolis that had been destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871. Its first collections consisting primarily of plaster casts, the Art Institute found its permanent home in 1893, when it moved into a building, constructed jointly with the city of Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition, at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street. That building, its entry flanked by the two famous bronze lions, remains the “front door” of the museum even today.
In keeping with the academic origins of the institution, a research library was constructed in 1901; eight major expansions for gallery and administrative space have followed, with the latest being the Modern Wing, which opened in 2009. The permanent collection has grown from plaster casts to nearly 300,000 works of art in fields ranging from Chinese bronzes to contemporary design and from textiles to installation art. Together, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the museum of the Art Institute of Chicago are now internationally recognized as two of the leading fine-arts institutions in the United States.
The Art Institute was founded as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1879. The name was changed in 1882, and shortly after, the institution was already in need of a new home for its expanding collection and growing student body.
As the city prepared to dazzle the country as host of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the Art Institute’s trustees negotiated with the city’s civic bodies for a new structure located on a park site at Michigan Avenue and Adams Street. The design of the classical Beaux-Arts building by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge allowed for the institution’s ambitious goals. The new building was the site of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions where Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda gave his famous “Sisters and brothers of America” speech. The Art Institute officially opened on December 8, 1893.
Within a year, the Art Institute had received its first major gift, a collection of French paintings presented by Mrs. Henry Field. Two significant improvements to the building followed: Fullerton Auditorium (1898) and Ryerson Library (1901). In 1913 the museum startled the city by hosting the Armory Show, a sprawling exhibition of avant-garde European painting and sculpture. Exceptional purchases from that controversial exhibition launched the museum’s collection of modern art.
Expansion of the museum was again required to suitably display a collection that now included nearly every artistic medium. The bold solution was to build over the Illinois Central Railroad tracks that bordered the Art Institute’s east wall.
Additions for both the school and museum were added and included memorials to two young men who died in World War I: the George Alexander McKinlock Jr. Memorial Court (in 1924) and the Kenneth Sawyer Goodman Theater (in 1925). The Art Institute’s holdings of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings were immeasurably enhanced by the bequest of 52 paintings from Bertha Honoré Palmer in 1924 and the 1925 gift of the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, which contained the famous Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte—1884, (1884–86). In the depths of the Great Depression, the museum received the single most comprehensive gift of art in its history, the bequest of Martin A. Ryerson. This donation contained masterpieces ranging from American and European paintings dating to the 15th century to textiles, prints and drawings, Asian art, and European decorative arts.
The exhibition A Century of Progress, held in conjunction with the 1933 World’s Fair, attracted 1.5 million visitors in five months, making it the highest attended show in the Art Institute’s history.
The material shortages that followed World War II brought a halt to the Art Institute’s building additions. Changes began modestly in the 1950s with interior reconstructions, creating spaces to accommodate new curatorial departments.
The growth of the professional staff led to the completion of the first major new structure in more than 20 years in 1958: the B. F. Ferguson Memorial Building. This addition is situated to the north of the original structure, which was named in 1968 after long-time trustee Robert Allerton. The Morton Wing, erected in 1962 to the south of the Allerton Building, was designed to house the expanding modern art collection and restore symmetry to the complex. Mrs. Stanley McCormick’s gift of gardens in front of both the Ferguson and Morton additions linked the Art Institute to surrounding parks.
The 1970s saw a sharp increase in both the number of art students and the number of visitors to the museum. The Art Institute responded to this trend with an entirely new east side expansion that included new studios, classrooms, and a film center for the School as well as new public spaces for the museum. This addition also housed the reconstruction of Louis Sullivan’s original Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, which had been slated for demolition.
Over many decades, the museum’s 1893 Allerton Building had been radically altered to accommodate a growing collection and new methods of presentation. A two-year renovation and restoration program of the second floor renewed the space’s symmetry, improved lighting, and created optimum viewing conditions.
The dramatic increase of the contemporary art collection and the popularity of large traveling exhibitions led, in the 1980s, to the construction of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Building, which opened in 1988. This wing still houses the museum’s largest special exhibition space, Regenstein Hall, as well as the American art collection. In the 1990s, the Art Institute built a new suite of galleries to house its Asian collection. Here, famed architect Tadao Ando designed his first American space, a gallery for Japanese screens. In 1993, a totally reconstructed Kraft Education Center opened to serve students, teachers, and families. Restoration of the Art Institute’s earliest educational spaces became a priority: the Ryerson Library was renovated in 1994 with restored interiors and new underground stacks, and work on Fullerton Auditorium began in 1999. As the century closed, a new exterior ramp and interior elevator were under construction to provide universal access to the Art Institute.
Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the Art Institute would embark on the largest expansion in its history, the Modern Wing. Designed by Renzo Piano, this addition, at 264,000 square feet, rivaled only the original Allerton Building of 1893 in size.
Spurred by the ever-growing permanent collection, the Art Institute began planning another major expansion at the turn of the 20th century. Originally intended as an addition to Gunsaulus Hall sitting over the railroad tracks on the south side of the museum, those plans were abandoned as construction began on Millennium Park, Chicago’s great urban centerpiece to the north of the museum. Working with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the museum broke ground on the site of the Goodman Theater in 2005 to build the Modern Wing, directly facing Millennium Park. This addition holds the museum’s collections of 20th- and 21st-century art, architecture, design, and photography as well as the Ryan Learning Center, two restaurants, the Bluhm Family Terrace for commissioned installations of contemporary sculpture, and the Nichols Bridgeway, which links the third floor of the Modern Wing to Millennium Park.
In concert with the Modern Wing, the former home of the museum’s collection of arms and armor was transformed into a sculpture court for Indian and Southeast Asian art, also designed by Renzo Piano.
The opening of the Modern Wing in 2009 not only expanded the museum’s space, it also led to a reconsideration of existing galleries and how to best display other collections throughout the museum. In the summer of 2010, galleries formerly devoted to contemporary art became the new home of the arts of Africa and the Americas, presenting the rich diversity of these superb collections in a substantially larger space. In the fall of 2010, the Roger L. and Pamela Weston Wing and Japanese Art Galleries opened, elegantly reconceptualizing the display of ancient through contemporary works of Japanese art. Fall 2012 brought the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, a suite of galleries that encircle McKinlock Court with artworks that trace the development of Western art from the dawn of the third millennium BC to the time of the great Byzantine Empire. And in spring 2017, the Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor opened, offering a rich and immersive experience of this period through more than 700 objects in various media.
The museum also continued to evolve through transformative gifts like that of Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson in January 2015, which added to the collection of contemporary art 44 iconic works by such artists as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns. Put on display in December 2015, this gift—the largest in the museum’s history—brought new depth and perspective to the Art Institute’s already strong holdings and made the contemporary collection the strongest of any encyclopedic art museum in the world.