Top 10 Museum Exhibits in Chicago of 2021

This year, I had the opportunity to crawl out of my pandemic-induced hibernation and finally see some Chicago exhibits in person! Since I couldn’t see every fabulous exhibit, I reached out to a bunch of Chicago-based museum professionals and asked them to tell me about their favorite exhibits of 2021.

The methodology for creating this list of top exhibits was hardly scientific, but it reflects the great enthusiasm that Chicago museum professionals have for their peers’ work. The list is based on a short survey that gave respondents the option to provide a quote about their favorite exhibit or to anonymously provide information about it. I posted the survey to Facebook groups for Chicago museum professionals and the responses came in!

Here are 2021 exhibits that Chicago museum community members told me they loved…

1) Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. at the Art Institute

Emily Crum, a Program Coordinator at the School of the Art Institute, loved this exhibit because, “Barbara Kruger’s work is critical of how images circulate through our culture and uses language to transform meaning. You cannot help but laugh out loud while Barbara Kruger dissects marriage vows, gas masks on an image of Jesus, and bodily organs. Kruger uses direct address, humor, empathy, memes, sound bites, and more to expose power dynamics of identity, gender, human nature, desire, historical narratives, culture, and capitalism. Not only are you looking at these works, but you are also immersed in them. Series of text surround you upon entering, forcing you to confront her message and setting the tone for the rest of the experience. Dark theaters loop video and sound-based work immerse you in her message, unable to look away. Not often do I spend 2 hours in one exhibition and come back for more!”

2) Questioneers at the DuPage Children’s Museum

Experience designer Anna Villanyi recommended Questioneers because “there is so much to creatively explore, without standing in place and focusing on what the museum is trying to tell me. It is designed for kids, so this is not necessarily surprising, but as an adult [working] in an adult-centric museum this was really refreshing- crocheted bees, kids mongering beautiful fake cheeses, building pancake towers taller than a four-year-old. It’s based on really wholesome books by a local author as well!”

3) Bisa Butler: Portraits at the Art Institute of Chicago

Ve’Amber Miller, a Park Guide at Pullman National Monument was amazed by the Bisa Butler exhibit because of the intricate details on her quilts. “If you didn’t listen to the paired playlist that went along with the exhibit that her husband put together, what were you doing!?” Miller exclaimed, “It was greatness; it was black girl magic.”

Aaron Kaiser-Chen, Operations Manager at the Halim Time & Glass Museum, also loved the Bisa Butler exhibit, stating, “The powerful subject matter and highly creative mixed media pieces left a lasting impression on me.”

4) Rise Up! Stonewall Uprising and LGBTQ Rights at the Illinois Holocaust Museum

Rise Up! explores the 50 years of LGBTQ+ activism that followed the Stonewall uprising of June 1969. The exhibit featured some Chicago-specific materials, including images of the first gay pride parade in Chicago in 1970!

5) Darger as Reader, Writer and Bookmaker at Intuit

Darger as Reader, Writer, and Bookmaker was the first is a series of three exhibits about the Henry Darger Room. It was one of my favorite exhibits this year because it provides a strong case study for how to contextualize historic spaces in exhibits. 

6) The Obama Portraits at The Art Institute

According to Angelica Guzman, a Lead Exhibit Designer at Luci Creative, The Obama Portraits “not only showed amazing and highly relevant artwork, but…also allowed me to see people’s reactions to the art in a meaningful way. The exhibit provided context for the art leading you into the room where the portraits were held, and they were displayed as a ‘power couple’ or paintings like their subjects. The transition into the room where the portraits were held hit you with the presence of what I took as reverence from the visitors already gazing at the art. You could hear a pin drop in the silence of a diverse crowd taking the large portraits in for long stretches of time.”

7) Wild Color at the Field Museum

Wild Color feels as if an exhibit developer specializing in natural history teamed up with a visiting artist to create a visually pleasing, fun, and informative experience. It was one of my favorite exhibits this year because it prompted me to question my own practice and wonder, “why do I always organize exhibits by categorizing content? How might I explore other methods of organizing artifacts and ideas in space?”

8) City on Fire: Chicago 1871 at the Chicago History Museum

City on Fire explores how the Great Chicago fire shaped the city we live in 150 years later. The Chicago-based media company Manual Cinema created ten media pieces for the exhibit that use shadow puppetry techniques reminiscent of 19th century cut-paper silhouettes, bringing period-appropriate drama to the space.

9) Human+Nature at the Morten Arboretum

The Arboretum commissioned South African artist Daniel Popper to build five larger-than-life sculptures that explore the boundaries between people and our environment. The exhibit offered a much-needed cultural experience for pandemic-conscious museum lovers who felt justifiably anxious returning to indoor spaces.

10) Essential Worker Portraits at the Swedish American Museum

Carolyn Olson, a Minnesota-based artist, began drawing portraits of essential workers when the stay-at-home orders began in 2020. Olsen’s own children worked as essential workers and her paintings highlight society’s willingness to sacrifice these underpaid and underappreciated individuals to illness in exchange for wider comfort and economic prosperity.

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