Chicago, the city of big art


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.

Back to Blue Kitchen

4 Responses to “Chicago, the city of big art”

  1. Terry K Says:

    I am inspired by Chicago…a commitment to include monumental art in the construction budget. I teach art in a middle school in NY and want 7th and 8th graders to make huge paintings for our beautiful new modern school, which is devoid of permanent art. Directing students to consider ideas that will be fun, somewhat educational but also timeless is the challenge I face. Do you have any suggestions?

  2. Terry B Says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Terry K. And what an exciting challenge you’re considering with your students! For starters, I think you might look at historical works such as Picasso’s Guernica and the works of Diego Rivera. For non-political beauty, you might look at some of Sol Lewitt’s beautiful abstract wall treatments. But what will probably speak most directly to your students [depending on your school’s willingness to explore such areas on school property] is graffiti art. I’m not talking mindless tagging here, but there is some remarkable stuff being done out there. Given the momentous political moment we’re all living in, I’m hoping your students can create something that captures the optimism of the country, even as we face huge challenges. Which reminds me, in terms of historical context, you might seek out some of the Depression-era work done with the support of the WPA.

    Hope this was helpful. Please keep me posted on how your project goes. I’d love to see photos when any are available. This might be a great thing to explore in a blog with your students!

  3. jean Says:

    Hi Terry B,

    I would like to use your image of the sculpture for our website. Might you email me directly to discuss?

    thank you.

  4. alexander calder, circus master « the republic of less Says:

    […] And this is Calder’s Flamingo in downtown Chicago, photo at this nice blog post […]

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