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The Complete Guide to Every Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago

Your one-stop guide to every gallery in Chicago's famous art museum, by someone who's visited them all!


the front steps of the Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the best art museums in the world. It’s full of renowned masterpieces and unexpected treasures alike. It’s one of my favorite places in the whole city of Chicago.


It’s also HUGE. 


In 2023, I set a goal for myself to visit every gallery in the Art Institute. Over my eight years as a Chicagoan and all my visits to this glorious museum, somehow there were still galleries and rooms that I’d never set foot in! 


In December 2023, I accomplished that goal! Now I’m here to share what I discovered about all the galleries, and what makes each one special. Every gallery has something amazing in it (or a plethora of amazing things!) but if you’re planning a visit, you can use this list to help prioritize the spots you most want to visit. 


The Art Institute is constantly changing, with new specialty exhibits popping up all the time and the main galleries receiving new installations regularly. But given the run of the place, here are the galleries and what you should see in each of them! 


1st Floor


Arts of China, Japan, and Korea


This wing to the right of the main entrance features stunning art from a variety of East Asian cultures. Think Japanese ink paintings, an incredible variety of statues and pottery, and the classic blue and white tableware that other cultures have been trying to copy ever since. My favorite pieces in this section are these elegant inscribed teapots, and this playful tomb guardian statue.




American Arts


Beyond the rooms of East Asian art, you’ll find a room dedicated to the ancient arts of North and South America. Pottery, beadwork, and stonework abound. My favorites in this room are the animal shaped pots and jugs, like this leopard and these alpacas.




African Arts


This gallery on the far side of the Ancient Americas gallery showcases the truly unique artistic stylings of several African cultures. Most striking are the detailed masks and the intricately carved ivory tusks.


Prints and Drawings


I love this room because they remind me of the pencil sketches you see scattered around art classrooms. And they’re beautiful. This gallery reminds me that things don’t necessarily have to be Capital-A Art to be art.


a statue of three women at the Art Institute of Chicago

Arts of Asia


The main connecting hall on the first floor of the museum contains more Asian arts. The stars of this section are the Hindu and Buddhist statuary, though you shouldn’t sleep on the intricate jeweled items either! There’s a lot to admire here, but my personal favorite is this little statue absolutely glorifying feminine beauty and sexuality. It hits a chord because the religion I was raised in never once gave me this, and it made me wonder what my relationship with my body would be like if I’d grown up in these traditions instead.


Greek/Roman/Byzantine Arts


To feel like you’ve fallen into the era of gods and kings, circle the Greek and Roman Arts exhibit. Ancient marble statues and stunning clay pottery are the must-sees. I want to be this marble woman when I grow up. And this is probably the best shoop in the whole Institute.



Chagall Windows


Tucked into the back of the museum, make sure you take the little side jog to see these as you make the Greek and Roman loop. The artistry is beautiful, and it’s the perfect place to sit and rest your feet for a while.


Arts of the Americas Pt. 1


This is an eclectic exhibit. There’s a lot of furniture sprinkled around, which has never been my jam in art museums, but the paintings on display here are some of my favorites in the place.


This one, called Rainy Day, might be my favorite painting in the entire museum. I love the simplicity of it, and the attention the artist paid to rendering this seemingly mundane scene. I visit this painting almost every time I go to the Art Institute.


a painting of a girl at the Art Institute of Chicago


Photography and Media


Tucked into the modern wing, this is modern experimental photography and printmaking. There’s also usually a video presentation going on as well. It’s usually pretty eccentric, which is exactly what modern art exhibits should be.


Specialty Exhibits


Also in the modern wing, this exhibit changes constantly. Some specialty exhibits come with an extra ticket cost, but some don’t, so check for ticket takers at the door. (But the extra costs are often worth it, so don’t let that stop you!) A glorious sampling of Camile Claudel statuary and studies was on display here while I was on my tour.




2nd Floor


Arts of Europe


This loop is a truly massive series of exhibits in a myriad of styles. The sheer scale of many of these are what astound me most. This is from the era when paintings were the size of an entire wall. And many are from an era where portraiture was everything, and the storytelling type of portraits, like these below, tend to be my favorites here.





a winged bust at the Art Institute of Chicago

European Design 


Friends, this is my least favorite gallery in the institute. There are some cool looking things in here, (like this self-portrait bust where the artist renders herself as a winged chimera), but most of the items here are European artists trying to create things that look like they’re from the far east or ancient Greece. Which is a bit of letdown where there are actual Greek and East Asian art pieces one floor down.







a gilded painting at the Art Institute of Chicago

Medieval and Renaissance Arts


Make a right off the main halls on the second floor and you’ll find yourself in the Medieval and Renaissance Arts section. This is a very religion-inspired area of the museum, with Virgin Marys, Jesuses, and Saints on every wall. I personally like this Saint who carries eyeballs on a platter.


Arms and Armor 


Swords! Armor! A full armored horse! My inner fantasy nerd loves this room. It’s truly fascinating to look at these pieces of armor and weaponry and realize that in this era they were also art. 




Impressionism


On the second floor, the central hallway is home to the Impressionist greats. Think Monet, Van Gogh, and so many more. This is one of my personal favorite exhibits. I love to explore the lesser known Van Goghs on display, and I can never quite get enough of Monet’s amazing studies in color and light. This is an extremely popular gallery, so try to visit this one early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to avoid the worst of the crowds.




Arts of the Americas Pt. 2


Up the stairs from Arts of the Americas Pt. 1, this area has much the same vibe, though it skews a little more contemporary in its presentation. This is where you’ll find the Institute’s works by Georgia O’Keefe, among other famous pieces.


Special Exhibit Area Pt. 2


Past the second floor American Arts galleries is another special exhibit space, which means it’s another space that’s constantly in flux. During my tour of all the galleries, this space first houses a paid exhibit about Van Gogh and his contemporaries, and then a free exhibit about Canova’s statuary work and process. Both were amazing! Check out this curated space for ever-changing magic


a modern painting of a plant at the Art Institute of Chicago

Architecture and Design


This is a wild exhibit. Just up the main stairs In the Modern Wing and past the little cafe, you’ll see some building drawings, some furniture, some bizarre paintings… I’m not sure how to summarize this room. You just need to experience it.


Contemporary Art


Weird modern chaos! You never quite know what you’ll see in the next room. Go exploring! Every artist has their own feel. Go nuts and see what you like.



3rd Floor


Modern Art


Up one more set of stairs in the Modern wing is another room of experimental beauty. Personally, I like the “Modern” floor better than the “Contemporary” floor, but you can visit both and choose for yourself. I love this painting of birds in flight, and this other one that’s loosely the Eiffel Tower in a very evocative way. This is also where you’ll find the Institute’s Picassos.




Lower Level


a hieroglyphic tablet at the Art Institute of Chicago

Egyptian Art


Down the stairs on the far side of the Asian Arts corridor, this exhibit straight up feels like a history museum. You’ll see Egyptian statuary and artifacts, including some beautifully carved hieroglyphic paintings. There’s also a mummy still in its decorative wrappings! 


Textiles


This tiny little gallery is easy to miss, but it's a Superstar of a gallery.


Did you know that your brain responds differently when you're looking at anything with a visible texture? Looking at textured art, as opposed to -lets say- a photograph of a smooth oil painting, engages the part of your brain that's most involved in touch, even if you aren't actually touching the item.


How do I know this? The Textiles gallery signage at the Art Institute taught me!


Whether that science appeals to you or not, you should absolutely take in the masterpieces in this gallery. These woven treasures are unlike anything else in the museum.




Photography


If you go downstairs from the main stairway, you’ll find the specialty photography exhibits. This area changes over incredibly frequently, showcasing the work of different photographers. The exhibits are always thoughtfully curated and fascinating. I tend to check this area out on every visit, just in case it’s changed since I saw it last!


Thorne Miniature Rooms


These little rooms are properly famous, and for good reason. They’re like the most historically accurate dollhouses you’ve ever seen. The detail on these rooms is astounding, and I’m always blown away by the depth in every one of them. It’s like you’re looking through a room and you can see through the door into the next one, or through the windows into the yard. Walking through this exhibit is like looking through time.



And that's every single exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago!


And there you have it! A summary of every exhibit space in the Art Institute of Chicago. Which galleries will you be checking out first on your next visit??


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Love and Shenanigans,


Andi


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