Digesting Van Gogh, Gauguin And 299,982 Other ‘Boring’ Works Of Art For Free At Chicago’s Art Institute In Just 90 Minutes

Van Gogh the drinkersIs there any point in visiting the Art Institute of Chicago if you only have about an hour and a half to take in what many regard as Chicago’s one bad-ass, can’t miss attraction? That was the question I pondered last Wednesday after I realized I had two appointments in Chicago’s Loop with a 90-minute gap in between them.

I’ve lived in Chicago on and off since 1997 and every time I come back from a trip and feel a bit homesick, that is, sick of being here at home, I think about what I can explore in my own backyard. I’d just had an incredible experience at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and thought I might check out another museum I hadn’t been to in a while.
I checked out Trip Advisor, and noticed that the Art Institute was far and away the city’s #1 attraction with 2,374 reviews and an average rating of 4.5 stars. The reviews of the place are so almost unanimously positive that I was curious about the six people, reflecting .002% of popular opinion who think that the place is a 1 star (terrible) thing to do in Chicago.

art institute chicago breast feedingOne of the disgruntled reviewers was a teacher whose class was unable to see a Matisse exhibit, two complained that the staff was rude, one insisted that the place was “very pregidist (sic),” and another griped about two exhibitions from years ago, one involving a crucifix and a bottle of urine and another that required visitors to step across an American flag to get to a complaint box. But the negative review I found most interesting was from one of the site’s “senior reviewers” from Oklahoma City who titled their review “Boring!”

I’d been to the Art Institute a few times before over the years but hadn’t been there in some time. The place, which was founded in 1879, has some 300,000 works of art in its permanent collection in eight buildings spread across nearly 1,000,000 square feet. Even Ferris Bueller didn’t think the Art Institute was boring!

The Art Institute is free for Illinois residents the first two Wednesdays of the month, so I decided to use the 90 free minutes I had in the city last Wednesday to take a power walk through the museum. My plan was to take in all of the museum’s works from Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, two of my personal favorites, and then try to walk through the entire museum, stopping only to take note of other pieces that I found particularly compelling.

I should state at the outset that I’m only an occasional museumgoer and when I am at museums, I’m usually harassing my wife to hurry up or looking for a bench to sit on. So as I fed a staggering $9 into a parking meter in the Loop for 90 minutes, I was feeling pretty good about my chances of seeing all or most of the place in short order.

art institute chicagoBut no matter how many times you’ve been to the Art Institute, there are always surprises in store and it’s easy to forget how damn impressive the place is. I started with a quick breeze through the basement, and an impressive exhibition on medieval German woodcuts on the second floor before getting completely bogged down looking at the impressionists on the second floor. One room has 13 Renoirs. There are seven Van Goghs in another small, ordinary looking room (The Carl & Marjorie Kelly Gallery) and a total of eleven works from Gauguin split into two rooms.

My rule was that I was only planning to stop and take note of works that I found particularly impressive, but within a half hour of my arrival, I was filling my notebook with the names of all kinds of artists I was completely unfamiliar with prior to my visit: Bernat Martorell, Paulus Moreelse, and James Vibert to name just a few.

By the time I was done with the second floor, I looked at my watch and realized I had just 15 minutes left. In a panic, I rushed down to the ground floor and breezed through a few thousand years of Indian, African, Southeast Asian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Himalayan, Greek, Byzantine and Roman Art in less time than it takes Andrew Zimmern to wolf down a plate of raw camel organs. It all went by in a blur and then I remembered that I’d completely neglected the museum’s Late Roman and Early Byzantine Treasures from the British Museum exhibit.

art institute treasures from the british museum roman chestI walked through that exhibit so fast that some of the security guards began to eye me nervously, as though I was about to run off with something and, in my haste, I actually set off an alarm when I walked too close to a ancient Greek mosaic on the floor. I beat a hasty retreat back to my car before security or Chicago’s parking Gestapo could get me.

I didn’t come anywhere near seeing everything in the museum – I didn’t make it to the third floor to see master works from Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, I didn’t hit the Modern Wing at all, and I missed other corners of the place as well. But the Art Institute is a glorious place to pass some time, even if you don’t have much of it, and the works of art I saw managed to lift my spirits at a time when I was feeling a little less than thrilled about life in Chicago (coming back from California in December can do that to you).

You can’t see everything at the Art Institute in 90 minutes but that isn’t the point. It’s easy to get into a mindset where going to museums is something you only do while you’re on vacation, but sometimes you can take a little mini-vacation right at home, even if it’s just on your lunch break. Wherever you live, there are places to do this. In Chicago, there is no better place for a lightning fast escape than the Art Institute.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara and Art Institute of Chicago]