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Art Institute of Chicago
Photograph: Time Out/Jaclyn Rivas

What it’s like to return to the Art Institute after a year and a half away

Expect some (surprisingly respectful) crowds.

Emma Krupp
Written by
Emma Krupp

As summer arrives in Chicago and the city continues to reopen, we're experiencing many places, pastimes and events again for the first time in more than a year. Throughout the coming months, Time Out Chicago editors will be chronicling their experiences returning to beloved haunts through a series we're calling Back At It. As we immerse ourselves in places and events that we once regularly frequented, we'll let you know what has changed, what's stayed the same and how you can get in on the fun.

The last time I went to The Art Institute of Chicago, back in October 2019, I spotted musician Joanna Newsom speed-walking toward the Modern Wing, evidently on some kind of sightseeing expedition ahead of her four-night stint at Thalia Hall. I'm easily thrilled by encounters like these (a semi-rare celebrity sighting in Chicago!), and the visit—my first since coming back to the city after a year overseas—felt auspicious, if otherwise unremarkable.

Though the museum reopened to visitors in February of this year, I didn't make it back to the Art Institute until last Saturday afternoon, when I boarded a crowded Red Line train and made my way to the Loop with a set of digital tickets on my phone. Post-pandemic change No. 1: You'll need to buy your tickets ahead of time unless you're eligible for free entry, in which case you can head to the admission counter when you arrive. The change had a pleasant, streamlining effect, and despite hordes of masked people filing into the entrance, I had my tickets scanned without needing to wait in line. So far, so good.

The museum has ample signage posted near the front entrance about its new COVID-19 policies, including masking—it's still mandatory, even for vaccinated visitors (and it might stay that way for a while, even after the city "fully reopens"). To test the waters, I did a lap through the museum's always-busy Impressionism collection, which has been marked with arrows to manage traffic flow. Guests mostly stuck to these guidelines, working counterclockwise around the room. It's difficult to stay six feet away from your fellow patrons (though those rules are about to go out the window anyway), but folks were respectful of others' space as we all crowded around “Paris Street; Rainy Day.”

After a bit of milling around, I decided to check out one of the museum's temporary exhibitions. Post-pandemic change No. 2: For special exhibitions, the museum has implemented a “virtual line” system, which requires guests to scan a QR code and wait in a queue ahead of entry. Or at least in theory. I pulled out my phone to scan at the entrance for “Bisa Butler: Portraits,” but an attendant at the door waved me through without incident. (Full disclosure: I skipped the “Monet in Chicago” exhibit, which will remain on view through June 14, out of a general lack of enthusiasm for the artist's landscapes.) I imagine the virtual line policy will be implemented more strictly once “The Obama Portraits” goes on view later this month.

Changes aside, most of the museum's features have remained refreshingly constant, from favorite and long-held artworks to the bingo card of tourist activities you'll inevitably spot during a weekend visit: Tourists searching for the cafe (it's still closed); tourists snapping photos of “American Gothic” in a rote, obligatory sort of way; and tourists asking docents questions like, “Where's the Picasso?” Nature is healing, as they say, and it's kind of nice to see.

Even nicer is getting to take in art in person again. Like many of its well-funded peers, the Art Institute did a commendable job of moving its exhibitions online and creating content for folks to interact with during lockdown. But still it's impossible for a computer screen to capture how a single layer of black chiffon creates shadow on Bisa Butler's incredible quilted works, or how coils of hair are rendered with soft velvet flowers, or what it's like to stare at a piece of art and feel moved amid a sea of strangers. At the Butler exhibition, I traveled from quilt to quilt behind a group of women who issued breathy exclamations of delight that mirrored my own, murmuring things like “beautiful!” and “absolutely fantastic!” Both were true, and I was glad they'd said so.

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