One of TripAdvisor’s “Top Museums in the World” for 4 straight years, the Art Institute of Chicago, truly offers a world-class museum experience.
Founded in 1879 as both a museum and a school, the Art Institute has grown considerably since its inception. Today it has 1 million square feet of space among its buildings and an art collection of over 300 thousand individual works ranging from Chinese bronzes to contemporary design (with just about everything in-between).
- The two patina lions guarding the entrance to AIC are not identical, are over 100 years old, and have names! The artist, Edward Kemeys, unofficially named the north lion “on the prowl” and the south lion “stands in an attitude of defiance”.
- The largest painting in the museum’s collection is Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV. It is 24 by 8 ft!
- AIC is the second largest art museum in America – trailing just behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City!
When you come on a Museum Hack tour at the Art Institute of Chicago you are sure to hear sassy “insider” stories about the art, play fun games in the galleries, and take lots of selfies. We guarantee you will leave both entertained and excited to brag about your experience with friends!
For more info about what you can and can’t bring with you into the museum, dining options, and special events, scroll down to the FAQ Section and logistical info section on this page. Want to get your bearings of the Art Institute of Chicago before you get there? Check out our 5 Things to See section below for a quick virtual tour.
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5 Things to See at the Art Institute of Chicago
Thorne Miniature Room exhibit
Down in the oft-overlooked basement of the Art Institute is a small gallery where you will discover 68 incredible tiny rooms!
AIC has the largest collection of Narcissa Niblack Thorne’s dioramas. Thorne’s small rooms, built on a one-inch to one-foot scale with meticulous detail, are far more involved than the shoebox diorama you made in third grade! Every diorama represents a different room from history: Victorian-era opulence, chic homes of 1940s American elites, humble nooks of early American Quakers, and much more…
What makes these rooms so f***ing awesome is the EXCEPTIONAL level of detail.
- Why does that silky curtain look so good? Because it’s real silk!
- Why does that bear skin rug look so real? Because it’s quite literally a bear skin rug!
- Why does that chair seem so comfy? Because a true chairbler (chair-maker) crafted it with real mahogany and the finest upholstery.
Everything inside these rooms were designed by Mrs. Thorne, however, she hired trade craftsmen and artisans to make the miniature creations irrefutably authentic.
Looking inside, you can’t help but imagine that you have traveled back in time!
The Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room
If astonishingly little rooms aren’t your thing and instead you prefer a massive space with immaculate attention to detail where you can actually step into history instead of just imagining it, AIC has you covered too!
This hidden gem was originally built in 1893 by the infamous architects Adler and Sullivan. It’s high vaulted ceiling, magnificent pillars and elaborate ornamentation are a sight to behold. But how did it end up at the Art Institute of Chicago?
The Chicago Stock Exchange has been a mainstay of commerce in the city for over a hundred years, but this ornate trading floor was only in operation for 14 of them. By the late 1960s, it was popular opinion that the old stock exchange floor should be demolished. But not everybody was ready to let this historic beauty go!
Richard Nickel led the crusade to save many of Chicago’s historic buildings, including the old Chicago Stock Exchange floor. Tragically, while working in the very building he was determined to save, a portion collapsed and killed Nickel. It was only after his death in 1972 that people took pause and decided that at the very least this room indeed needed to be saved.
Piece by piece the Art Institute carefully removed the old trading room and rebuilt it in its entirety in AIC’s Rubloff Building. It premiered in the late 1970s in honor of architects Adler and Sullivan, as well as historical preservationist Richard Nickel.
In summary, you have got to see this room. It’s to die for!
The Impressive Impressionism Collection
The AIC is home to the second largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in the world! Here you’ll find over thirty paintings by Claude Monet, the well-known father of Impressionism.
- The term impressionist all started with Monet’s 1874 painting, which he called Impression, Sunrise. He titled the work in response to many critics reviews that the work seemed more like an unfinished sketch or a mere impression than the work of a great master.
- While many critics were not impressed with the impressionist movement, Chicago’s own Bertha Palmer was enamored by these paintings and is responsible for providing the AIC with much of its expansive collection. (Bertha, you da f***ing best!)
If Monet isn’t your thing? Worry not! There are many works from Renoir and Degas too.
Perhaps even more remarkable is the collection of Post-Impressionist artwork on display, with masterpieces from Lautrec, Gauguin, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Rousseau, and Georges Seurat’s well-known painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. This renowned piece will leave you mesmerized! To truly appreciate Seurat’s pointillism technique and keen impression of high society you have to see this piece in person and up close.
Georgia O’Keeffe is a School of the Art Institute of Chicago alum and as such the AIC has many of her paintings proudly on display. Including the largest painting in the entire museum, Sky Above the Clouds IV.
O’Keeffe decided to paint this massive canvas at age 77 because she felt there was nothing holding her back from making a big deal about a big piece of art. This work is 8 feet tall and 24 feet wide, the exact dimensions of her two-car garage in New Mexico where she painted it. O’Keeffe climbed on tall ladders and laid on the ground to reach every piece of canvas. Occasionally a rattlesnake slithered through the open garage door to critique her work – yikes!
This HUGE painting was meant to be part of a traveling retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work in 1970. The plan was to go from NYC to Chicago to San Francisco, but the massive painting never made it out of the Second City when the SFMOMA realized they could not fit it through their doors!
Sky Above the Clouds IV is a spectacular reminder from the elderly Georgia O’Keeffe that the sky is not the limit, you can reach beyond it at any age!
Picasso’s Old Guitarist
The Art Institute of Chicago houses one of the most comprehensive and extraordinary modern art collections in the world. From the iconic American Gothic to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, around every corner, you’ll find yourself taken aback by legen – wait for it … DARY works of art that you’ve seen time and again, but didn’t expect to experience in person.
Tucked away in a gallery on the third floor of the Modern Wing is a hidden gem you don’t want to miss: Picasso’s The Old Guitarist.
Make sure to look closely, there is much more than meets the eye!
The Old Guitarist is one of Picasso’s most recognized works. At first glance, you might not notice this painting has a few secrets of its own.
Do you see a woman’s face? Look again in the top center, there is a ghostly face listening to the old man’s guitar music. It is indeed a ghost from Picasso’s past that he painted over.
In fact, revelations from x-ray imaging show that Picasso made multiple attempts on this canvas that still show through, including
- a naked woman
- a child suckling at her breast
- a cow
Even the masters make mistakes! When you can’t afford another canvas, as was the case for 22-year-old Picasso, you have to roll with it and just keep painting. Thankfully he did!
Hacks for Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago
- The coolest elevator in the building is definitely the groovy glass one in the Modern Wing. You can look out in the courtyard and up above through the ceiling and wonder, "What is lifting this thing? The power of art? Magic? Yoda?" It's by far a part of the museum worth visiting. The elevator itself feels like your in a strange piece of interactive art!
- If the museum seems packed at the main entrance on Michigan Ave, try coming in at the Modern Wing entrance on Monroe St to avoid the crowds.
The Art Institute of Chicago: Logistics and FAQs
10:30am – 5:00pm + Thursday Evenings till 8:00pm. The Art Institute of Chicago is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
$19 Seniors, Students, and Teens (age 14 -17)
$0 Children (under 14)
Check out special pricing for Chicago and Illinois educators and residents here.
$1 per item (cash only). Flowers, balloons, food, and drink cannot be carried in or checked. For more information about bag size restrictions, security inspections, etc. visit the museum’s website.
Phone: (312) 443-3600
Address: 111 South Michigan Avenue Chicago, IL 60603-6404
For a complete list of family and member programs, visit the Art Institute of Chicago’s event calendar.
Food inside the Art Institute
The Museum Café (open daily – 11:00am-4:00pm) offers a wide selection of healthy and tasty options, this family friendly dining option even features a kids menu. Located on the lower level near McKinlock Court, the Museum Café opens on Thursday evenings with a light bar menu as well.
No flash, tripods or videos cameras and leave your selfie stick at home.
Public transportation is a great way to reach the Art Institute of Chicago – both the “El” train system and the Metra provide easy access to the museum.
Nearby public parking garages:
- East Monroe Street and Millennium Park garages (entrance at Columbus Drive and Monroe Street)
- Grant Park south garage (entrance at Michigan Avenue between Van Buren and Adams streets)
- Grant Park north garage (entrance at Michigan Avenue between Madison and Randolph streets)
Valet parking is also available every day from 10:30 a.m until one-half hour after closing. It is $28 per car and payment is cash only.
The Art Institute of Chicago has a limited number of strollers available free of charge for parents with small children. They may be picked up at the Michigan Avenue or Modern Wing entrances. While strollers are generally allowed freely throughout the museum, they may be restricted from certain special exhibitions due to space limitations. You’re invited to give the museum a call with further questions.
What’s Allowed Inside
If you’re wondering what kind of bag to bring to the AIC, here’s a clever rhyme to help keep you out of trouble:
If you can sling it over your shoulder you’re good to go-lder, but if you have to sling it over your back then you’re going to get flack.
Speaking of staying out of trouble, no exposed drinks are allowed in the galleries. But you can place a bottle of water in any bag that is a shoulder-slinger or that you carry below your waist.
Why We Know So Much About The Art Institute of Chicago
Our company, Museum Hack, leads renegade tours of the world’s best museums, including at the Art Institute of Chicago. Our guides are experts in the obscure, and collectors of amazing hidden stories about the art and museum; many of which the museum staff isn’t allowed to share.
When you come on a tour of the Art Institute of Chicago with Museum Hack, expect
- Great photo opportunities! The AIC is replete with cool pieces and photo backdrops. Whether it’s your best statue impersonation or coming together to imitate famous works of art, you’ll want to share the cool pics from your epic museum experience for years to come!
- Unheard stories! Does art ever get stolen? Of course! Does the Art Institute want you to know about it… NO! But we’ll gladly point to pieces that got plucked over the years and share all sorts of crazy stories behind the stolen art and the museum.
- Exciting lists! If this list isn’t exciting enough already then maybe listing five reasons why Jeff Koons is the worst will suit your fancy. Or following the list of a tantalizing scavenger hunt, scouring AIC for unseen treasures and heads that belong on decapitated statues.
- Plenty of participation! Art is subjective, we will discuss which art you’d like to buy, burn and steal. We’ll tell love stories about incredible African masks that are obviously destined for each other. You might even discover your drag queen name and perfect a fierce runway walk with a group of fellow drag novices (all while learning the finer parts of art history too, of course).
- Cool facts to tell your friends! Who knew Roman statues were crap creations that fell apart because they were put together like Mr. Potato Head. Guess which famous people graduated from the School of the Art Institute… Hugh Hefner was one! A Museum Hack experience at AIC is not only entertaining but chock full of knowledge nuggets for your brain to feast on.
No matter how many times you’ve visited the Art Institute of Chicago, we’ll show you the “Un-highlights” you have never seen or heard of before.
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