Cheap things to do in Chicago

What to do in Chicago when you're broke.

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Got limited funds but unlimited energy? Join the club. From comedy nights to museum exhibitions, here's everything going on in Chicago that won't require a payday loan.


Messing With A Friend

  • Price band: 1/4

Each week, legendary improviser Susan Messing and a different friend segue from scene to scene, creating characters and situations along the way that are weird, wild and wonderful.

  1. Annoyance Theatre 851 W Belmont Ave
  2. Thu May 29 - Thu Aug 20
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Challenger

  • Price band: 1/4

iO presents the long-running definition of late night comedy on their stage, full of big laughs and high energy.

  1. iO Harold Cabaret 1501 N Kingsbury St
  2. Fri Jun 13 - Fri Oct 3
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The Whaleship Essex

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit. By Joe Forbrich. Directed by Lou Contey. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes Never underestimate an economy's power to sway a man's moral judgement, be him a modern day energy CEO or a 19th-century New England Quaker. There's an awful lot of that transpiring onboard the final voyage of the titular Essex, whose ill-fated 1819 journey is recreated and examined in Joe Forbrich's historical drama and animated with gusto in Lou Contey's Shattered Globe Theatre production, but not always in the way you'd think. As the ship's company store purser (Alif Muhammad) puts it to a young, bravado-filled seaman (Drew Schad) early in the three-year whaling expedition, even if everything goes as planned, inflated living expenses and uneven shares all but guarantee everyone but the higher-ups will wind up in the red. Compared to the rousing 15-men shanties sung on the desk (impressive in scale and function in Theater Wit's space thanks to a seamless marriage of Ann Davis's set and Michael Stanfill's projection design) or harpooning excursions in hunting boats, it's a short and underplayed scene, but a massively disconcerting omen. After all, when your industry is already known for lashings, epic battles against nature and profit-by-bloodletting, who are you to trust when things go south and your best interests aren't at heart from the powers that be?Both captain and crew are forced to answer that

  1. Theater Wit 1229 W Belmont Ave, between Racine and Lakewood Aves
  2. Thu Aug 28 - Sat Oct 11
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The Coward

  • Rated as: 2/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit. By Nick Jones. Directed by Vance Smith. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.Theater review by Kris VireNick Jones’s 2010 fops-and-robbers comedy is of a dual (and duel) nature. Broadly, this piece about an 18th-century London dandy who, pressured by his macho dad to get with the dueling times already, hires an amoral rascal to take his pistol and his place, aspires to imitate the comedies of manners of Sheridan and Goldsmith, but also to poke at those manners from a sardonic, anachronistic remove. Jones is moderately successful at both aims.Lucidus Culling (Brian Plocharcyzk) is uninterested in the prevailing mores of his fellow noblemen; he’d rather chase butterflies and have pie picnics with his equally fey friends (Ian Daniel McLaren and Spenser Davis). But an attempt to curry favor with his father (Stephen Walker) by finally challenging another man to a duel—an act his two (dearly departed) brothers didn’t shy away from—backfires; Lucidus has the bright idea to hire an imposter (Steve Schine), which backfires worse. Soon the fake Lucidus is throwing down gauntlets and mowing down innocents all over town.It’s a fairly clever setup, and Jones’s script is riddled with amusingly out-of-place one-liners (as when Lucidus’s dad spits disgustedly, “Your veins are filled with little girl baby urine!”) and some adroit ideas, such as the running joke that the letters of courtship between Lucidus and the comely Isabelle Dupree (

  1. Theater Wit 1229 W Belmont Ave, between Racine and Lakewood Aves
  2. Sat Aug 30 - Sun Oct 5
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Mnemonic

  • Rated as: 2/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Red Tape Theatre at DCASE Storefront Theater. By Complicite. Directed by Brandon Ray. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; no intermission.Theater review by Kris VireThe title of this 1999 piece devised by the British theater company Complicite suggests it’s about memory. But really the fragmentary, dreamlike Mnemonic is concerned with origins—less the whats than the whys.A young man named Virgil (Chris Carr) is locked in a state of limbo after his girlfriend, Alice (Meghan Reardon), left with no explanation eight months earlier. He spends sleepless nights wondering where she’s gone and why she won’t return his calls. Alice, we learn, found out at her mother’s funeral that her father actually wasn’t dead, as her mother had told her all her life, and she impulsively set out across Europe hoping to track him down.Interwoven with the fictional couple’s tales is a recounting of the real-life 1991 discovery of a frozen, remarkably preserved Bronze Age corpse on the Austrian-Italian border. The efforts of Austrian archaeologist Konrad Spindler (Robert Oakes), who was a leader in the study of the mummy that came to be known as Ötzi the Iceman, to determine the circumstances of the prehistoric man’s death is presented in direct but ill-fitting parallel to the young lovers.In director Brandon Ray’s production, the true story is more compelling than the fictional. Despite sympathetic performances by Carr and Reardon, their characters remain underwritten ciphers, Virgil particularly

  1. Storefront Theater, Gallery 37 Center for the Arts 66 E Randolph St, at Garland Ct
  2. Tue Sep 2 - Sun Oct 5
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Miracles in the Fall

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Polarity Ensemble Theatre at Greenhouse Theater Center. By Chuck O'Connor. Directed by Richard Shavzin. With Laura Berner Taylor, Fred Wellisch, Mickey O'Sullivan, Rian Jairell. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes Chuck O'Connor's new drama about a torn Catholic family struggling to make amends takes a page from the familiar Eugene O'Neill playbook of dysfunction and disillusionment around the dinner table. You've got your hardened Irish blue-collar father, long given up on forgiving his late wife for an unnamed sin; your prodigal son, fallen from grace and trying to turn back the clock and win dad's acceptance; and most aptly, a liquor cabinet full of whiskey to drown a generation's worth of sorrows and secrets before setting them all aflame. It's not exactly subtle, and neither is Richard Shavzin's production for Polarity Ensemble Theatre. Set in 1968 Detroit, the plot mainly centers on Sister Clare Connelly (Laura Berner Taylor), a nun who, like her father (Fred Wellisch), takes comfort in the church's deeply rooted traditions even as she fails to articulate why. As her father says, "We're Catholics! We don't understand God, we obey God." It's a mentality shared by the parish's head priest, but not Father Lentine (Rian Jairell), a post–Vatican II–style minister who fills in indefinitely while the monsignor is away. He's young, full of colloquialisms and jokes, and applies a Jesuit sense of mercy and progressiveness to the parish, which becom

  1. Greenhouse Theater Center 2257 N Lincoln Ave, between Webster and Belden Aves
  2. Wed Sep 3 - Sun Oct 5
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Endgame

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

The Right Brain Project. By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Aaron Snook. With Bries Vannon, Vincent L. Lonergan, Lena Bloom, Ralph Knowlson. Running time: 2hrs; no intermission. Theater review by Kevin Thomas The Right Brain Project has done two great things with absurdism: made it immediate, and made it focused.The audience is ushered into a solitary room by Clov (Bries Vannon), a gaunt young man summoned to witness his patriarch die. Only Hamm (Vincent L. Lonergan) did not die—remaining on the cusp of life as years turn into centuries and the outside world ceased to exist. Chalkboard walls contain a lifetime of scribbles and hints of when things still changed. The invalid Hamm is bound to his leather chair in the center of the room, from which he directs Clov through the pointless routines of their day. But Clov believes “it must be nearly finished,” and has set chairs around the perimeter for us to see the end.As there’s no house light to dim, the audience is illuminated the same as the cast: I was surprised how wonderfully exposed the set is. It’s the difference between watching the room and being in the room, right there with Clov and Hamm, often inches away from key props. All of Beckett’s details and stage directions—the clomping step of Clov’s boots, repeated gestures, small but significant objects—gain massive impact when they’re claustrophobically close. Absurdism’s, well, absurdity can make it difficult to enter the world of the play—not so here.The production keeps

  1. Right Brain Project Rorschach 4001 N Ravenswood Ave, At Irving Park Rd
  2. Thu Sep 4 - Sat Oct 4
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Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: Undone

  • Price band: 1/4

Skyline StageWorks makes its debut as Patricia Henritze and Shawna Tucker pare down Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra into a lively, streamlined four-actor adaptation. John Arthur Lewis directs.

  1. the side project 1439 W Jarvis Ave, between Greenview Ave and Sheridan Rd
  2. Fri Sep 5 - Sun Oct 5
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Don't Pass Go

  • Price band: 1/4

Monopoly is a classic board game that everyone knows, so why not base a musical around it? Come to the show and roll the dice to determine which version will be in focus: poverty-stricken Baltic Avenue or millionaire mansions on Park Place? Anything is up for grabs.

  1. pH Comedy Theater 1515 W Berywn Ave, at Clark St
  2. Sat Sep 6 - Sat Nov 8
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The Midnight City

  • Rated as: 4/5
  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Firecat Projects at the Steppenwolf Garage. By Tony Fitzpatrick with Stan Klein. Directed by Ann Filmer. With Fitzpatrick, Klein, Anna Fermin, John Rice. Running time: 1hr 45mins; one intermission. Theater review by Megan Powell “I’d rather have a memory than a dream,” goes the classic Sarah Vaughan track that’s sung near the end of The Midnight City, but this theater piece suggests that Chicago artist/raconteur/provocateur Tony Fitzpatrick would rather have both. The Lombard-born, longtime Ukrainian Village resident and internationally-known visual artist (and writer, actor, radio personality) is moving to New Orleans, where he wants to just “draw birds and be warm.” Despite that post–polar vortex declaration (and that he’s “done with dibs”), Fitzpatrick’s laments, rants and memories about a changing city, “a city that people made,” he declares his fierce love of Chicago still flourishes. Fitzpatrick’s longtime sidekick Stan Klein, who’s billed as a “smart traveler in the world of the arts,” thinks Tony should stay put. In steamy New Orleans, Klein tells him, “all your paper’s gonna curl.” Stein’s not just Fitzpatrick’s onstage foil, he’s his business partner in Firecat Projects, their Bucktown-based art project, and collaborator in this, their fourth stage show. It’s a fitting coda to follow the trilogy of pieces also staged at Steppenwolf and created with the same collaborators. As before, Midnight City takes the shape of a 90 or so minute, multi-arts storytelling night

  1. Steppenwolf Garage 1624 N Halsted St, between North Ave and Willow St
  2. Sat Sep 6 - Sun Oct 19
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Season on the Line

  • Price band: 1/4

Writer Shawn Pfautch pulls out his finest slings and arrows for the House Theatre's new backstage meta-adaptation, in which the fictional Bad Settlement Theatre Company struggles to mount the perfect stage adaptation of Moby-Dick—which becomes an Ahab-like artistic director's own white whale. Jess McLeod directs.

  1. Chopin Theatre 1543 W Division St, at Milwaukee Ave
  2. Fri Sep 12 - Sun Oct 26
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Fail/Safe

  • Rated as: 4/5
  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Strawdog Theatre Company. By Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. Adapted by Anderson Lawfer and Nikki Klix. Directed by Lawfer. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 10mins; no intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's 1962 Cold War doomsday novel was adapted twice for the screen; once in Sidney Lumet's thrilling 1964 film, which ran opposite Stanley Kubrick's similarly plotted nuclear satire Dr. Strangelove, and again for television in a 2000 CBS black-and-white event starring George Clooney, Brian Dennehy and Richard Dreyfuss, alongside a similarly A-list supporting cast. Both classics are worth watching or revisiting, the latter if only for seeing a high bar for live network television events before the genre became a gimmicky ratings grab or a magnet for hate watching. Though the events and dialogue in Nikki Klix and director Anderson Lawfer's adaptation largely follow those in both films, it's very much its own show, in part because of what it omits. Lawfer, who also serves as artistic director for Strawdog Theatre's Hugen Hall programming, boils the action down to 70 minutes and three spaces that coexist onstage at all times in Mike Mroch's economic but sophisticated set design: a Pentagon conference room, an Omaha intelligence bunker, and a secure White House communications room. While giving a congressman (Joe Mack) a tour of the underground air activity monitoring and defense command center, military personnel observe an unidentif

  1. Strawdog Theatre Company 3829 N Broadway, between Grace St and Sheridan Rd
  2. Sun Sep 14 - Tue Oct 14
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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

  • Rated as: 2/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Idle Muse Theatre Company at Rivendell Theatre. By Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Nathan Pease. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes Impropriety is the ultimate taboo in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 horror classic, a concept that largely went the way of tailcoats and monocles somewhere along the timeline between its Victorian setting and today's personal information–overloading society. If the Twitterverse alone weren't enough to prove secrets and image-obsession just don't give the dramatic highs they used to, just look to the country's collective shoulder shrug upon seeing Edward Snowden's NSA leaks.Consider the hypothesis put forward by Jekyll, the socially elite, self-experimenting gentleman physician who untethers his inner demons for science: Inherent in every person is a morally-inverse doppelgänger whose urges are either given into or suppressed. Well, of course. In Nathan Pease's American Idol-free production for Idle Muse, Stevenson's gothic parable is taken a step further by divvying up Mr. Hyde to be portrayed by a rotating cast of four opposite Dr. Jekyll (Gary Barth). It's a potentially interesting challenge, one that's been capitalized on a handful of times for excitement and laughs by the likes of former Hypocrites artistic director Sean Graney. Jeffrey Hatcher's self-serious 2008 adaptation seems headier, as it fragments Hyde into more nuanced and varied incarnations. It doesn't follow, then, that just about e

  1. Rivendell Theatre 5779 N Ridge Ave, between Edgewater and Ardmore Aves
  2. Thu Sep 18 - Sun Oct 19
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The Monster in the Hall

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Filament Theatre Ensemble. By David Grieg. Directed by Julie Ritchey. With Molly Bunder, Lindsey Dorcus, Christian Libonati, Andrew Marchetti. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission. Theater review by Kevin Thomas The Monster In The Hall is a cacophony of enthusiasm, anxiety and Scottish accents. David Grieg’s free-flowing script presents an unprocessed, rapid-fire coming-of-age story wrapped around a small nugget of pain and sadness. Filament Theatre Ensemble chose an ambitious project, but one that was within its means. Though it's occasionally rough and careens through its blocking like the show needs to finish up so it can get to the bathroom, it’s an enthusiastic ride whose color, noise and surprises serve the story well.It wasn’t crazy enough that Duck Macatarsney (Lindsey Dorcus) is the daughter of two bikers. And it wasn’t crazy enough that her mom died years ago in an accident, and that her Ducati Monster motorcycle remains permanently parked in the house as her legacy. Her lovable father Duke (Andrew Marchetti) has developed MS, and Duck has become both caregiver and her own parent in an attempt to keep their ramshackle life going—until an impending visit from social services threatens to strip all that away.The production takes place in the round with cabaret seating, on a stage resembling a 1960s music program complete with microphones and a piano. Real-life high jinks are interwoven with songs, game show sequences, and late-night hosts who expand upon Duck’s

  1. Filament Theatre Ensemble 4041 N Milwaukee Ave, between Irving Park Rd and Belle Plaine Ave
  2. Fri Sep 19 - Sun Oct 26
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A Kurt Weill Cabaret

  • Rated as: 4/5
  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at No Exit Cafe. Directed by Fred Anzevino. With Jordan Phelps, Jill Sesso, Christopher Logan, Kellie Cundiff, Michael Reyes. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission. Theater review by Megan Powell Theo Ubique’s latest, finely crafted revue opens with “Bilbao Song,” an ode from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 1929 musical Happy End that recalls the headiness and hangovers that transpired in Bill’s Beer Hall, a good-time dump where chairs and bottles fly but the fun was “fantastic.” The fun eventually ends, once the beer hall is cleaned up into a middle-class joint, “just another place to put your ass.” That trajectory mirrors that of Weill, who was barely out of his 20s when he collaborated with Brecht on the songs so intensely rendered in the first act of A Kurt Weill Cabaret.  Comprising most of the act, their six-movement “Mahagonny Songspiel” salutes, then denounces Mahagonny, another debauched and dreamlike place. Its premiere in 1927 in Germany was so electrifying that, according to a biography of Weill, he soon after entertained offers to promote its “Alabama Song” as a “pop-song in America.” While that dream didn’t come to fruition at the time (though decades later “Alabama Song” was covered by avant-pop stars; both The Doors and David Bowie performed versions), the rise of the Third Reich eventually pushed Weill to the U.S. and to collaborations in the 1930s and 1940s with the best and brightest playwrights and lyricists of Broadway, incl

  1. No Exit Cafe 6970 N Glenwood Ave, between Morse and Lunt Aves
  2. Mon Sep 22 - Sun Oct 19
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Ching Chong Chinaman

  • Price band: 1/4

Lauren Yee's comedy satirizes stereotypes of Chinese-American identity via an ultra-assimilated California family that acquires an indentured servant from the People's Republic. Giau Minh Truong directs A-Squared Theatre Workshop's Chicago premiere.

  1. Raven Theatre 6157 N Clark St, between Hood and Granville Aves
  2. Sat Sep 27 - Sun Oct 19
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The Clean House

  • Price band: 1/4

Bluebird Arts makes its debut with Sarah Ruhl's whimsical 2004 Pulitzer finalist about a cleaning lady dreaming of a careeer in stand-up comedy.

  1. Athenaeum Theatre 2936 N Southport Ave, at Oakdale Ave
  2. Mon Sep 29 - Sat Oct 25
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The Drums

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Donning mod attire and dancing feverishly through every song, Brooklyn's much-buzzed Drums channel a heavy new-wave element, as heard on 2011's Portamento. A follow-up titled Encyclopedia is expected later this year. In the meantime, catch them live at Bottom Lounge on September 27. 

  1. Bottom Lounge 1375 W Lake St, between Ada St and Ogden Ave
  2. Mon Sep 29
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"Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo"

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

The extent of Frida Kahlo's influence in the art world, apart from her signature unibrow, is widely known. Her graphic self-portraits portray her psychological and physical self, usually accompanied by lots of blood and body parts. The MCA is honoring her memory by displaying several works inspired by Kahlo's style of rebellion and cultural reflection through four main themes: the performance of gender, issues of national indentity, the political body, and the absent or traumatized body.

  1. Museum of Contemporary Art 220 E Chicago Ave, at Mies van der Rohe Way
  2. Tue Sep 30 - Sun Oct 5
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"Simon Starling: Metamorphology"

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Simon Starling emerged from the Galsgow art scene in the early 1990s, creating memorable films, photographs and installations that repurpose existing materials to impart new stories and insights. "Metamorphology" is the first large-scale survey of Starling's work to be hosted by a major American museum. The exhibition will include complex multimedia installations, photographs and some of the artist's recent film work.

  1. Museum of Contemporary Art 220 E Chicago Ave, at Mies van der Rohe Way
  2. Tue Sep 30 - Sun Nov 2
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"Earthly Delights"

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

As modern art continues to embrace minimalism, the MCA presents an exhibition of work from its permanent collection that explores the inherent pleasure and aesthetic beauty of art. Collecting paintings, sculptures, and installations by eight artists, "Earthly Delights" includes pieces that use decoration and design to confront social issues like gender and racial politics. The exhibit includes work by Swiss Balthus, Lynda Benglis, Carol Bove, Nick Cave, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Michaelangelo Pistoletto, Lari Pittman, and Yinka Shonibare.

  1. Museum of Contemporary Art 220 E Chicago Ave, at Mies van der Rohe Way
  2. Tue Sep 30 - Sun Nov 30
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"Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938"

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

When I walk through an exhibit devoted to one artist, I wonder, would that artist have enjoyed the presentation? As I ambled through the Art Institute’s somber and dark Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, with its paintings set on charcoal walls beneath pools of yellow light, I guessed that Rembrandt would have gotten off on it, but not Magritte.  When one thinks of Rene Magritte, images of blue skies and green apples likely come to mind. The surrealist's work was crisp and clean—only the scenes presented were painfully bizarre. These iconic Magritte paintings are mostly his later works, and you’ll only find them on magnets and plates in the gift shop. The Art Institute's showcase of his formative years is akin to being trapped under a bowler hat (which of course are for sale as well), and while there’s little to critique in terms of Magritte’s work itself, there are two questions to answer when you're seeing a show of works by an artist of this caliber: 1. Does the show tell us anything new about Magritte’s work? Yes, particularly if all you know are those apple images. And 2. Is it an enjoyable show to go see? It is not, due to a bevy of strange curatorial choices at the Art Institute. The 100+ work show, which first ran at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Menil Collection in Houston, focuses on the dozen years in which Magritte began to explore the themes and aesthetics that would define his career. The show moves chronologically, and the Belgia

  1. Art Institute of Chicago 111 S Michigan Ave, at Adams St
  2. Tue Sep 30 - Mon Oct 13
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"Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections"

  • Price band: 1/4

Collecting 63 artworks from the early Christian and Byzantine eras, "Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections" presents a selection of mosaics, architectural fragments, manuscripts, silver and painted icons. The exhibit features newly restored pieces on loan from various Greek collections, some of which are being exhibited in the U.S. for the very first time.

  1. Art Institute of Chicago 111 S Michigan Ave, at Adams St
  2. Tue Sep 30 - Sun Feb 15
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"Collective Soul"

  • Price band: 1/4

The latest Inuit exhibition delves into private collections of outsider art, assembling a survey of work by self-taught artists. The exhibit seeks to unravel the influence that collectors have had on the outsider artists community, compiling works from the likes of Martín Ramírez, Henry Darger and David Butler.

  1. Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art 756 N Milwaukee Ave, at Ogden and Chicago Aves
  2. Tue Sep 30 - Sat Dec 27
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