Visual Art on Campus

Even the museums here are Smart

By Supriya Sinhababu

Art addicts, take heart: There’s more to local art in Hyde Park than the graffiti at the Med.

Whether your definition of creative genius is best represented by a Matisse or a milkshake-making bicycle, you can probably scratch your art itch without leaving the neighborhood—or paying admission.

First, stop by the University’s free Smart Museum of Art, next door to Pierce and home to over 10,000 works. The collection ranges from ancient Greek vases to Frank Lloyd Wright furniture to Rodin sculptures; sign up for an art history intro course and you may get a glimpse of some of the treasures not on display. New exhibitions set up shop at least every few months, so it’s a good idea to check back often. Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan, an exhibition showcasing religious sculpture carved in northern China more than 1400 years ago, opens September 30.

Or, let your mind wander to far-off lands (they will by winter anyway) and visit the Oriental Institute—the ancient Near East’s Midwestern outpost. This world-renowned collection of artifacts found on University-led excavations should be enough to send archaeology and Egyptology buffs into spasms of joy. It’s free to enter, but a $5 donation is suggested. Discover how the earliest middle eastern scribes thought up this whole "writing" thing in the first place at Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East, which opens September 28 at the Oriental Institute.

For a more modern aesthetic, try the Renaissance Society, a non-collecting museum run by Ninja Turtles. (We can dream.) From its fourth floor perch in Cobb Hall, the Renaissance Society focuses on more contemporary artwork than its name would suggest. The Society introduced Midwestern audiences to a long list of modern masters during the 1920s and ’30s, from Picasso to Arp to Mondrian. Today the Society sponsors concerts, film screenings, poetry readings, and, of course, art exhibits—all for free. This fall, noted sculptress Rebecca Warren will present about 15 new pieces at the Renaissance Society. Publicity materials included a photo of Warren's "Cube," a roughly-hewn bronze block atop a rolling pallet. Should that pique your interest, visit Warren's solo show, which opens October 3.

When you’re up for a hike, hit the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC), technically located in the northern neighborhood of Kenwood. As the oldest alternative arts space in Chicago, HPAC played host to the Chicago Imagists in the late ’60s; today it puts out a steady stream of free exhibitions showcasing both Chicagoan and non-local talent. Catch Pat Swanson's Autofall, a collection old car parts arranged in shapes and patterns suggestive of the fall of the United States' automobile manufacturers, before it closes on October 17. Need some motivation to make the trek? HPAC’s buildingmate, Istria Cafe, sells gelato.

Not all local art lives in a museum or gallery. Case in point: Festival of the Arts (FOTA), a student-run group that helps campus denizens fund and share original art projects. For 10 days each spring, FOTA turns the campus into a guerrilla art venue. In 2009, projects included the aforementioned milkshakemobile, a dance performance in front of Cobb entitled “We Should Hang Out, I Never See You,” and a monumental 11-foot dress in Hutch Courtyard. Think you can top all that? Submit a project proposal for this year’s show; FOTA may help you foot the bill.

Clearly, you don’t need a Medici to patronize your aesthetic adventures in Hyde Park. Whether you’re a Renaissance woman or a Postmodern man, you’ll appreciate the beauty of not needing a dime when the mood to play art critic strikes.