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Immersive Van Gogh
Photograph: Zach Long

The best Chicago museum exhibits to see right now

Many of Chicago's museums and galleries have reopened, welcoming guests back inside must-see exhibits and shows.

By Zach Long
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After closing their doors to visitors for much of 2020, some of the best Chicago museums have reopened, accompanied by an array of new safety precautions. Under Tier 1 guidelines, local cultural institutions are able to welcome guests at a limited capacity, while requiring the use of masks and encouraging social distancing. Right now, visitors have the opportunity to see a variety of exhibitions and shows that were cut short (or postponed indefinitely) last year, in addition to some new arrivals like the anticipated "Immersive Van Gogh" experience. Not sure what to see? We've gathered the best Chicago museum exhibits you can visit right now—just be sure to secure a ticket or a reservation before you head out.

Best Chicago museum exhibits

Immersive Van Gogh
Immersive Van Gogh
Photograph: Zach Long

1. “Immersive Van Gogh”

Art Lighthouse ArtSpace, Old Town

You've probably heard a lot about this high-tech audio and visual experience, which uses more than 50 digital projectors to turn a series of rooms into moving Van Gogh masterpieces. The Chicago edition of the show is particularly impressive, covering 35-foot walls in the Germania Club Building with vivid animations built around works like Starry Night and The Bedroom in Arles. You can take in the entire 35-minute presentation from various vantage points within the gallery—we've assembled some tips for your visit. Keep in mind that capacity is limited, so tickets are moving rather quickly and several weeks are already sold out.

Monet Poppy Fields
Monet Poppy Fields
Photograph: The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball Collection.

2. “Monet and Chicago”

Art Painting Art Institute of Chicago | Chicago, IL, Grant Park

Originally scheduled to open last May, this exhibit devoted to the work of Claude Monet opened briefly in 2020 and has now been extended through June. The show celebrates the Art Institute's lasting relationship with the famed impressionist, who displayed his first U.S. solo exhibit at the museum in 1985. You'll see major works as well as rarely seen sketches and landscapes sourced from local collections, including early works like Apple Trees, Vétheuil and On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, as well as canvases from his Stacks of Wheat series.

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Chicago Gamespace
Chicago Gamespace
Photograph: Courtesy Chicago Gamespace

3. “Nom Nom: 40 Years of Pac-Man Design and History”

Art Digital & interactive Chicago Gamespace, Logan Square

Delving into the local history of Pac-Man (which was popularized in America thanks to the efforts of Chicago-based Midway Games), Chicago Gamespace's latest exhibition considers how a yellow group of pixels became a beloved part of pop-culture that has jumped from arcade cabinets to home consoles and movie screens. Collecting games and Pac-Man ephemera (including soap, lunch boxes and clothing), “Nom Nom: 40 Years of Pac-Man Design and History” is an interactive tribute to the hungriest video game icon. Chicago Gamespace is currently only open on Sundays and requires an advance reservation.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela
Photograph: Graeme Williams / Illinois Holocaust Museum

4. “Mandela: Struggle for Freedom”

Museums History Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, Skokie

Learn about the life of Nelson Mandela and his long fight against apartheid in South Africa and racial injustice around the world through this exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. The exhibit celebrates the life of Mandela and seeks to empower visitors to fight the racism, antisemitism and injustice that still exists in the modern world. “Mandela: Struggle for Freedom” collects original letters and documents that Mandela penned, displayed alongside a recreation of the tiny prison cell where Mandela spent 18 years of his life and the small apartment that served as the backdrop for his first televised interview.

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Bisa Butler
Bisa Butler
Photograph: Margaret Fox

5. “Bisa Butler: Portraits”

Art Textiles Art Institute of Chicago | Chicago, IL, Grant Park

Enter the colorful world of Bisa Butler in this exhibition devoted to the textile artist's portrait quilts, which depict Black subjects that have historically been marginalized. Originally trained as a painter, Butler shifted to making works with fabrics, layering textiles and building on the sewing techniques that she learned from her mother and grandmother. The Art Institute is presenting the first solo exhibition of Butler's work, collecting more than 20 of her vibrant portrait quilts.

Krista Franklin, Self-Portrait in the Aftermath , 2020.
Krista Franklin, Self-Portrait in the Aftermath , 2020.
Photograph: Courtesy the artist

6. “Reproductive: Health, Fertility, Agency”

Art Photography Museum of Contemporary Photography, Loop

Eight different artists consider the psychological, physical and emotional tolls of reproduction, displaying photographs that explore unconventional representations of the female body. Tackling topics like birth, miscarriage and abortion, “Reproductive: Health, Fertility, Agency” draws attention to the rights of females at a time when they are once again being threatened throughout the world. Don't forget to snag a reservation before you visit!

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Cecil McDonald, Jr.
Cecil McDonald, Jr.
Photograph: Courtesy the artist

7. “Cecil McDonald, Jr.: Cuts and Beats”

Art Contemporary art Hyde Park Art Center, Kenwood

Local artist Cecil McDonald, Jr. presents a collection of recent work, much of it developed during a 2018 residency at the Hyde Park Art Center. Known for his photomontages that comment on the various racist representations of Black individuals and artists throughout history, "Cuts and Beats" explores how Black artists were promoted during the Vaudeville and Minstrel eras. Juxtaposing vintage advertisements with contemporary photos, McDonald's work acknowledges the deeply problematic imagery and attitudes of the past and turns them on their head.

 Jo Ractliffe
 Jo Ractliffe
© Jo Ractliffe. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

8. “Jo Ractliffe: DRIVES”

Art Photography Art Institute of Chicago | Chicago, IL, Grant Park

The stark, black and white imagery of South African photographer Jo Ractliffe takes the spotlight in this new Art Institute of Chicago survey of her work. Ractliffe's images confront the aftermath of apartheid, the legalized form of racial discrimination that exisited in South Africa until the early ‘90s. Depicting barren landscapes and literal debris, her photos and video installations document places and people that are reckoning with the consequences of forces beyond their control.

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K. Kofi Moyo
K. Kofi Moyo
Photograph: K. Kofi Moyo, courtesy Black Image Corporation

9. “K. Kofi Moyo and FESTAC ’77: The Activation of a Black Archive”

Art Photography Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Woodlawn

Centered around a collection of images from Chicago-based photographer Karega Kofi Moyo, this exhibition looks back at the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (a.k.a. FESTAC ’77), which took place in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977. Moyo's photographs document a pivotal gathering of the Black diaspora, accompanied by images of Black life during the ’70s. The exhibit also includes contemporary responses to Moyo's work, provided by participants in a University of Chicago course that explored Black photography archives. Head to the Logan Center for the Arts website to reserve a free ticket to see the exhibit.

wndr museum
wndr museum
Photograph: Courtesy wndr museum

10. WNDR museum

Art Installation 1130 W Monroe St, West Loop

The home of Chicago's only Infinity Mirror Room (created by Japanese Yayoi Kusama) is open to the public once again, presenting a new collection of one-of-a-kind art installations alongside some old favorites. New additions to WNDR Museum include a multi-sensory experience from S̶A̶N̶T̶IA̶G̶O̶X that uses artificial intelligence, sounds, visuals and scents, as well as an installation called I Heard There Was a Secret Chord that allows guests to become part of an evolving virtual choir. Like many galleries and museums, WNDR will be open at a limited capacity, with temperature checks, hand sanitizing stations, increased airflow and manditory mask use in place to help protect staff and guests.

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