art conservation

Public Art in Downtown Chicago

Since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, building a better city has been a top priority for Chicagoans. Celebrated architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan flocked here to build the city that we know today. Alongside architecture, public art has been a fixture of Chicago aesthetics for decades. The city’s public art includes some exemplary pieces of modernist art. Here are the stories behind four sculptures that define public art in downtown Chicago.

THE PICASSO

Designed by Pablo Picasso in 1967, this piece is technically unnamed, but is colloquially referred to as “the Picasso.” It was one of the first public sculptures to be placed downtown and sits in Daley Plaza inside the Loop. Commissioned by the architects of the Richard J. Daley Center, Picasso refused the payment for the piece, instead creating the sculpture as a gift to the city of Chicago. The Picasso looks a bit like a jungle gym and it is not uncommon to see visitors of the plaza climbing on and around the sculpture.

ALEXANDER CALDER’S FLAMINGO

Head a few blocks south in the Loop and you will find yourself dwarfed by the Flamingo, a large vermillion abstract sculpture sitting in the Federal Plaza. Alexander Calder designed this sculpture in 1974, clocking in at an epic weight of 50 tons. Calder wanted his sculpture to wind and arch, a curving pop of color surrounded by monumental steel buildings. Flamingo was the first sculpture to be unveiled under the Percent for Art program—a program which administers a percentage of the city budget to public art. 

Left: Pablo Picasso, Untitled, 1967. Right: Alexander Calder,  Flamingo , 1974.

Left: Pablo Picasso, Untitled, 1967. Right: Alexander Calder, Flamingo, 1974.


JOAN MIRO’S CHICAGO

Down the street from Picasso’s sculpture is a work by contemporary master Joan Miró, fittingly titled Chicago. This piece was unveiled in Brunswick Plaza by Chicago’s first female mayor Jane Byrne in 1981. Miró’s sculpture is a 40-foot statue of a woman tucked between two skyscrapers. It is a mixed media sculpture—steel, wire mesh, concrete, bronze and ceramic tile produce Chicago.


ANISH KAPOOR’S CLOUD GATE

 Known to all Chicagoans and visitors as “The Bean,” this sculptural feat is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the whole city. Contrary to popular belief, the actual name of Anish Kapoor’s sculpture is not The Bean—it’s Cloud Gate. Kapoor’s design was based on liquid mercury and consists of 168 stainless steel plates welded together. The highly polished structure is a mirror to Millennium Park and the buildings that surround it. The bean-shape bends and curves giving viewers a perfect photo opportunity as the reflections are distorted. The sculpture was the product of a design competition and debuted in 2004.

Left: Joan Miró,  Chicago , 1981. Right: Anish Kapoor,  Cloud Gate , 2004.

Left: Joan Miró, Chicago, 1981. Right: Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate, 2004.

Chicago is known for its public art, from sculptures to murals to interactive pieces in parks. Public art is meant to be enjoyed by the people and be accessible to all. Sometimes that accessibility leads to rare acts of vandalism. Just last week, Cloud Gate was tagged with spray paint. According to the Chicago Tribune, workers were able to remove the graffiti quickly and restore Chicago’s iconic sculpture.

In our work as art consultants, we have worked on a variety of projects involving public art or conservation. We have coordinated the moving and storage of large-scale outdoor sculptures. We also work with talented conservators to restore artwork when accidents happen. Helping companies find, install, and protect art for the enjoyment of their employees, customers, and the public is one of our chief joys as a company.

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How to Light Artwork

RICHARD HULL

RICHARD HULL

Lighting plays a significant role in artwork display. It can be subtle and often the best art lighting is designed to be unnoticeable. We’re often called upon to consult on the lighting for spaces under construction, but mindful lighting can also be implemented in existing spaces.

When you hang artwork, if it seems dull or not as impactful as you hoped, additional lighting is likely needed. If artwork is hung near a natural light source, this need may only become clear at night. Lighting can help bring out textures from brush strokes in paintings and can make colors glow.

Types of Art Lighting

The style of lighting can have a big impact not only on the artwork, but on the aesthetic of the space. Here are a few popular options for light fixtures and benefits of each design.

Example of Spotlighting

Example of Spotlighting

Picture lights

The most traditional option, picture lights mount directly above a piece of artwork. This is a great option if you want to spotlight the artwork, and if you don’t intend to change the artwork layout. These permanent fixtures come in numerous sizes and finishes. Depending on the style, these help enhance a traditional or vintage aesthetic.

Track Lighting

This adjustable lighting option is the most customizable type of fixture. A great option for dynamic compositions such as gallery walls, track lighting allows you to add, remove, and rearrange spotlights in order to achieve the desired amount of lighting. If the layout of your artwork is in flux or is regularly refreshed, track lighting can provide flexibility to highlight a wide range of artwork.

Wall Washes

The most subtle options for lighting, wall wash fixtures are typically set into the ceiling, and coat a wall with light. This minimal option is versatile and makes any artwork on the wall glow, regardless of scale.

Conservation Concerns

When selecting lighting for artwork, preserving the work is an important consideration. Art can be susceptible to overly bright and overly hot fixtures. Opting for LED over halogen is a safe way to prevent heat damage. Most LEDs also emit little to no UV rays, which can fade pigments over time. It’s best to select bulbs that mimic natural light to avoid casting blue or yellow tones over the artwork.

If you’re installing light fixtures, it’s important to ensure the artwork is removed and protected during the construction. Any amount of dust can damage the surface of artwork, especially dust from plaster of drywall. These materials are abrasive and its particles can ruin the surface of plexiglas and other delicate materials.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to best approach art lighting, we recommend consulting this article from Architectural Digest.

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