Bean and Beyond in Chicago

Long before the charismatic Rahm Emanuel ran the Windy City, Mayor Michael Bilandic, sometimes referred to “Mayor Bland,” supported passage of an ordinance that would change the face of Chicago. Called the Percent for Art Ordinance, it stipulates any city buildings and spaces undergoing renovation or new construction devote 1.33 percent of the cost to promoting original artwork on the premises. Public parks, police stations, and libraries being built or receiving a face-lift were mandated to include art in the project. The ordinance was passed in 1978, one year after Bilandic married the director of the Chicago Council on Fine Arts. The Council was later restructured and renamed the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.


During my first trip to Chicago last week, I was astounded by all the public art. Maybe that sounds silly if you don’t live in a big city, but I’m saying this after having lived in the New York City metro area for almost the past decade being surrounded by all kinds of art, from street graffiti to Monet. While in Chicago, I experienced public art in the expected places like at Grant Park and Millennium Park where the beloved “Bean” known officially as “Cloud Gate” designed by Anish Kapoor stands. Beyond the Bean, I kept bumping into art, like the “Flying Dragon” sculpture (which I thought was a fish) near a tulip garden, or the water fall over a monolith-like computerized screen showing a woman’s face. Sometimes I didn’t even know where I was walking. I just wandered and took photos. I’m sure there’s a guide out there with explanations about what I saw, but instead of planning, mapping and reading, I roamed the Grant Park-Millennium Park-South Michigan Avenue area before I had to catch a bus to a company dinner. Apparently several parks and public buildings throughout Chicago are like this…art is everywhere. Whether this is Bilandic’s legacy or he just got the ball rolling, I don’t know, but art thrives in Chicago.

This piece right along Lake Michigan is called “Flamenco Revisited.”


Another leading lady reaching toward the sky in Chicago is “Magdalene,” a piece I was eager to see and thrilled to come across without trying. Designed by sculptor Dessa Kirk, the piece becomes entwined with its surrounding blooms as flowers crawl up her skirt. Chicago’s harsh, long winters, typical for Great Lakes communities, make for short, but hot, summers, so blooms will blossom soon.


The “Flying Fish…um Dragon.”



Installed in 2007, “The Bean” is popular among locals, tourists, and school groups, and attracted all three during a sunny, bright afternoon in downtown Chicago.




The renowned Art Institute of Chicago is the largest art museum in the Midwest and among the most prestigious museums in the United States. Located on South Michigan Avenue by Millennium Park, the museum offers free admission every Thursday from 5:00 – 8:00 pm. The gift shop had this quietly moving piece that made me think of Mother’s Day. I really wanted to buy it but then recalled I was doing Chicago on a budget.


Purplish lilies sprout from the ground not too far from the famous Clarence F. Buckingham Memorial Fountain. The fountain has been a beloved gathering spot since its dedication in 1927 and was inspired by the opulence at Versailles.




Kids splash in the water while images of a smiling woman are projected from behind a waterfall. Nearby, tulips sunbathed.




A hallway in the historic Hilton Chicago hotel features a painting called “Faces of Chicago.”


Can’t tell you what this is but I can tell you it involves pipes.


Walk between Terminals 1 and 2 at Chicago O’Hare Airport and there’s a corridor gallery featuring works by student artists who participate in the Chicago program After School Matters. People whizzed back and forth thumbing iphones while I pointed my iphone at windows, benches and glass dangling things so I could take pictures. One woman walked up and said “Isn’t this beautiful?” as if we were the only two people in the airport noticing and perhaps at that moment, we were. The kids art works made me giddy, so giddy that I donated $100 and tweeted their praises because, well, I’m a marshmallow. These two benches below were painted by kids.




Near the student art work corridor is a mural that’s more like a mirror of Chicago. These guys need no introduction.



CondeNast Traveler just published more about Chicago’s public art scene, which you can read about here. I’ll save these parks and pieces for the next visit.

Leave a Reply