Yeah, yeah, I know. Carl Sandburg said big shoulders. But Chicago is home to some really big art too. One of the biggest—and best—collections of monumental outdoor art in America, in fact. Like Alexander Calder’s 53-foot Flamingo in Federal Center Plaza.
It all started with the Chicago Picasso. Dedicated back in 1967 by the first Mayor Daley and inexplicably immediately embraced by pretty much the entire city, it was a gift from the artist—even though Picasso never set foot in America during his entire life.
This work was the impetus for the city’s Percent-for-Art Ordinance, enacted in 1978. It stipulates that a percentage of the cost of construction and renovation of municipal buildings be set aside for the acquisition of artworks for these buildings.
Largely because of this ordinance, I can schlep visitors around downtown and matter-of-factly say, “Oh, yeah, there’s the Picasso. And across the street there is the Miro. Oh, look—there’s the Chagall. And over here’s the DuBuffet. And the Nevelson. And the Giacometti.” And when I’m standing at the corner of Dearborn and Adams, facing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s elegant trio of buildings that make up Federal Center Plaza, I can say, “And this is one of our two Calders, Flamingo.” [The other is a massive motorized mobile in the lobby of the Sears Tower.] I’m sure I’m probably insufferable when doing this. And that’s kind of part of the fun.
Maybe I should have started with the Picasso, since that’s the piece that got the ball rolling. But my favorite is Flamingo—I love its grace and energy and lively color. Someone once asked Calder about the name. He admitted he’d called it that simply because “it was sort of pink and has a long neck.” Nice.