Artwork defines Chicago in small, large ways

When I think of Chicago’s icons, the lofty Sears Tower and festive lakefront Navy Pier come to mind first. They identify the city because of their setting and unique structural silhouettes.

Artwork will do the same thing in an even more distinctive way. Think about Picasso’s lion-like sculpture, on Daley Plaza since 1967. Or “Cloud Gate,” an ever-changing mirror of the city and its people at Millennium Park, the urban playground that opened on Michigan Avenue in 2004.

More than 700 pieces of public art dot and define Chicago. “Cloud Gate” and the untitled Picasso are just two of the 100-plus that are downtown, and now the city has organized a set of neighborhood tours to explain the history and impact of this bounty.

Chicago’s budget for artwork is 1.33 percent of its construction budget for public buildings. The city’s public art program has commissioned artwork for public spaces and buildings since 1978. Other art installments exist because of private donations or funding by other public entities.

“There are many layers of collections,” says Elizabeth Kelley, public art program director, and tour guide for the city’s first, three-hour art sightseeing excursion (via bus and foot). What is to be learned?

Art can play tricks with the eye.

Bronze lions in front of the Art Institute of Chicago are not twins: One has tail down and mouth open; the other take the opposite stance. The Bowman and The Spearman, in Grant Park, are convincingly poised to attack – but neither sculpture contains a weapon.

Art can have functional value.

A sleek, cylindrical sleeve over an elevated train stop at the Illinois Institute of Technology muffles the noise as it dresses up the campus. A 13-foot sundial outside of Adler Planetarium works.

Art can be a reaction to history.

“Monument to the Great Northern Migration,” a bronze figure of a man with a suitcase and featherlike attire, since 1994 has bolstered an entrance to Bronzeville, an African American neighborhood. Within a 96-foot-tall monument at Douglas Park is the tomb of U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, who was Abe Lincoln’s toughest political rival.

Art can entice emotional reactions.

Casual and joyful interactions are commonplace at Millennium Park art installations. More contemplative moods emerge a few blocks south, at Grant Park, while walking among 106 headless figures, each nine feet tall. “Agora,” the 2006 work of a Polish artist, is one of Chicago’s most emotional and controversial, says Elizabeth Kelley.

Art requires maintenance.

Although the city in 1999 established an annual budget to clean and maintain its public art, upkeep of the growing collection remains a challenge.

This is the case with “Fountain of Time,” constructed in 1922 in Washington Park. Although restored in 2003, the concrete figures no longer gaze onto a pool of water, much less a spouting fountain.

“Many people want to donate artwork to the city,” notes Elizabeth. “Ninety percent is turned down” in part because of maintenance concerns.

The average person cannot easily see two of Chicago’s newest additions of public art, in the new Federal Building for Homeland Security and Immigration Services, which opened in 2007 at 101 W. Congress Parkway. Screening upon entrance is tight: Show an ID, take off your shoes, empty your pockets, explain why you’re there.

So a guided city art tour is the least conspicuous way to view a whimsical, abstract mural by Arturo Herrera of Venezuela and “La Tormenta/The Storm” by Inigo Manglano-Ovalle of Spain. The latter are near-twin clouds of shiny fiberglass, each 1,200 pounds and looming three stories above a waiting room.

“Going to a federal building is rarely a pleasant experience,” notes Michael Finn, fine arts specialist for the U.S. General Services Administration. “It’s usually a point of tension or anxiety,” and the artwork helps soften the experience.

For more about Chicago Neighborhood Tours: www.chicagoneighborhoodtours.com, 312-742-1190. Tours leave from the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph St., and last three to five-plus hours. Sites are viewed by bus and while walking.

Cost is $20 to $50 (often less for children, students with an ID and people ages 65 or older).

Other tours of public art will be June 18 and Aug. 13 (west neighborhoods); July 2 and Aug. 27 (near north); July 16 (“American Art, American City” theme); and July 30 (south).

Longer tours command the higher price and include lunch. Our favorite is the Taste of the Neighborhoods tours (June 28, July 26, Aug. 16, Sept. 20, Oct. 18 and Nov. 22). Ethnic foods are sampled at family-owned restaurants and other food businesses. The stops change every other month, and this tour tends to fill fast.

Additional tour offerings typically concentrate on a neighborhood, ethnic presence or historical era. Literary Chicago (Aug. 2 and Oct. 18) discusses Chicago’s influence on famed authors, poets and playwrights. Great Cemeteries of Chicago (July 19, Aug. 9 and Sept. 13) is a study of architecture as well as final resting spots of the famous.

Architecture often is an element in the neighborhood tours, but the finest way to study the Windy City’s most distinct structures is through nonprofit Chicago Architecture Foundation tours.

At least one-half dozen types of tours are offered daily during summer. Topics range from Frank Lloyd Wright to skyscrapers to Millennium Park. Sites are toured by bus, by walking or – our preference in good weather – boat.

Docents acknowledge more than 50 spots of significance during the 90-minute Architecture River Cruise, offered several times per day. A ticket is $30 or less; reservations are recommended.

For more: www.architecture.org, 312-922-3432. Departure point depends upon type of tour.

For more about public art in Chicago: www.cityofchicago.org, then search for “public art.”

Note: The Chicago Office of Tourism arranged for our complimentary participation in Chicago Neighborhood Tours.