Visit an unfamiliar museum and pretend you’re traveling

Favorites like the Impressionist paintings at the Art Institute and everything at the Chicago History Museum are always a pleasure to revisit, but as the new normal loomed, seeing unfamiliar museums allowed me to indulge the pretense of traveling.

21c Hotel Museum

I had never heard of the 21c Hotel Museum until my friend JoAnn asked whether I wanted to go. The country’s ninth 21c location opened at 55 East Ontario Street in February 2020 and soon shut down because of the pandemic. The exhibit This We Believe, with works by 56 contemporary artists, continued after reopening. 

The exhibit’s leftist messages confront hotel guests and visitors who are welcome to explore without charge. Literally confront: paintings, sculptures, photographs, and more fill the lobby, staircase, corridors, and meeting rooms of the first two floors.

Being provocative is deliberate. Museum director Alice Gray Stites doesn’t worry about offending well-heeled hotel guests and the tony neighborhood just off the Magnificent Mile. She wrote in the exhibit brochure,“The artworks question and critique unalloyed allegiance to creed or country.” The viewpoints generally align with my politics, although I might not have grasped many messages without help from the explanatory wall text. 

Among the most accessible works are a series of photographs by LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Notion of Family, taken in her decaying hometown, and the animation National Anthem, in which the camera pans over Kota Ezawa’s watercolor images of National Football League players kneeling, sitting, and standing and locking arms during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

Two pieces include images of Donald Trump. In Sebastian Errazuriz’s Police State, he and Vladimir Putin are each missing a forearm, while Xi Jinping is seated on a throne, suggesting whose country is ascendant. Profiles of Trump and Jesus face one another in Abdullah M. I. Syed’s Trump and Christ: Rose Petal.  

A crucified Jesus appears on the back of Michael Jordan in Titus Kaphar’s Ascension. Other works feature recognizable personalities including Osama bin Laden, Angela Davis, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In one of José Toirac’s series juxtaposing historical images and Western consumerism, the logo of the perfume Opium is superimposed on a photo of Fidel Castro meeting Pope John II in 1988. 

A number of works manipulate the flags of the United States and other countries. Recurrent themes include the intersection of faith and violence, the legacies of colonialism, and domination by technology. 

Chicago is the biggest city to have a 21c Hotel Museum, whose nine locations together make up the largest contemporary art collection in the country and the only one dedicated solely to 21st-century art. The idea of a free contemporary art museum within hotels was the brainchild of two Louisville philanthropists and art collectors. Exhibits will change periodically.

Illinois Holocaust Museum

Since getting to the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie requires a long trek on public transportation, I had never made an effort to see its permanent exhibition. The invitation of my friend Bobbie, who has a car, was welcome.

The Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition provides a comprehensive examination of the Holocaust from pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe through World War II and postwar resettlement of survivors. Its informative text is supplemented with hundreds of artifacts, among them an authentic German railcar used as transport to concentration camps. The exhibition addresses questions about why and how Hitler and the Nazis rose to power and were able to delude the German people. A unique local focus looks at postwar Jewish life in Skokie, which had the largest per capita population of Holocaust survivors anywhere.

The Holocaust Museum also has temporary exhibits, including the current one about Nelson Mandela, but the Holocaust exhibition is so large we didn’t have time for anything else. I would recommend visiting the museum even if it takes effort to get there without a car.

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  • Thank you for the recommendations. How much walking is involved at the Holocaust Museum? My tired knees would seem puny in that context, but I do need to think of them.

  • It's not like the Art Institute or the Field Museum. The Holocaust exhibition is like a maze, winding back and forth.

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