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Barbara Kruger. Untitled (Forever), 2017. Installation view, Sprüth Magers, Berlin, 2017–18. Amorepacific Museum of Art (APMA), Seoul.
Photograph: Timo Ohler and courtesy of Sprüth MagersBarbara Kruger. Untitled (Forever), 2017. Installation view, Sprüth Magers, Berlin, 2017–18. Amorepacific Museum of Art (APMA), Seoul.

The best Chicago museum exhibits to see right now

Chicago's museums, galleries and pop-ups are hosting some intriguing exhibits throughout the fall.

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long
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If you've been waiting to get back to the best Chicago museums, now is a great time to do so. The city's major institutions reopened to visitors earlier this year and most of them are presenting fall exhibitions that will be on display until the weather gets frigid. You can head to the Art Institute of Chicago to explore an "anti-retropective" of Barbara Kruger's conceptual work, explore the lasting impact of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 at the Chicago History Museum or make your way to Skokie to learn about the history of the LGBTQ rights movement at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Plus, pop-up exhibits devoted to street artist Banksy and a collection of neon- and light-based artworks are on display through the end of October. 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

  • Art
  • Contemporary art
  • Grant Park

Don't call this one a retrospective. Yes, the Art Institute's exhibition of Barbara Kruger's work encompasses four decades of her career, but "THINKING OF YOU. I MEAN ME. I MEAN YOU." isn't stuck in the past. Instead, the display takes Kruger's vintage works and presents it alongside new pieces that build upon them, unlocking new context and meaning. Spread throughout the museum, guests will find rooms wrapped in Kruger's imagery, installations in the Regenstein galleries and pieces that inhabit the exterior walls of the museum (as well as billboards, bus stops and storefronts around Chicago). Expect to see Kruger's biting sense of humor on display—often spelled out in big, bold letters.

  • Art
  • Design
  • Loop

Comic artist and author Chris Ware and historian Tim Samuelson curate an exhibition devoted to the early days of the comic strip. Showcasing work from the period of 1880 to 1960, the exhibit includes early strips that ran in newspapers as well as work by African-American cartoonists and publishers. The exhibit also pays tribute to Frank King, who penned "Gasoline Alley," creating one of the very first autobiographical comics based on real Chicagoans and the neighborhoods they lived in. If you've already seen the Museum of Contemporary Art's “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now” exhition, this show will give you an even deeper understanding of the artforms' ties to the Second City.

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  • Things to do
  • Lincoln Park

The Chicago History Museum commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, exploring how the tragic event transpired and how it changed the city for decades to come. The family-friendly exhibition examines the details of the three-day blaze, exploring how the Irish immigrant O’Leary family was blamed for the fire and tracing the path of destruction (and 100,000 homeless residents) that the incident left in its wake. Featuring more than 100 artifacts from the museum's collection—including items that were damaged in the fire—"City on Fire: Chicago 1871" also showcases a reproduction of a cyclorama painting depicting the fire's path that was originally displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

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  • Museums
  • Natural history
  • Museum Campus

One of the Field Museum's most popular traveling exhibitions (which debuted in Chicago in 2014) returns home, using interactive displays to showcase how the bodies of animals operate much like machines. Visitors can use a pump to see how a giraffe's heart is able to send blood all the way up its neck or take in footage of a cheetah running to see how it's able achieve incredible speeds.

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  • Art
  • Photography
  • Lincoln Park

A largely unknown artist when she was alive, Chicago photographer Vivian Maier left behind a wealth of street photography that capture beautiful moments in time. The Chicago History Museum's new exhibit of her work features more than 65 images, displayed alongside film clips, quotations and sound bites that help fill in the historical context of the things that Maier chose to document with her camera.

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  • Museums
  • History
  • Skokie

Tracing the contemporary gay rights movement back to the June 1969 police raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York City, the Illinois Holocaust Museum's hosts an exhibtion that documents a continuing struggle for equality. On loan from the Newseum, “Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement,” collects more than 85 artifacts, such as posters from Harvey Milk’s campaign for public office in San Francisco and the gavel Nancy Pelosi used to announce the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Visitors will learn about the history of the LGBTQ community through pivitol moments in history and in popular culture.

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  • Art
  • Photography
  • Grant Park

Explore the small-but-mighty works of photographer André Kertész, who arrived in Paris in the fall of 1925 with a camera and what was left of his savings. Over the next three years, the majority of the photos he produced were printed on postcard paper, making them easy to share with friends and benefactors. Exhibiting a collection of these small-scale works, the Art Institute's latest exhibit explores Kertész's output in the years before he graduated to international exhibitions and magazine spreads.

  • Art
  • Photography
  • Loop

There are more guns than people in America, making it the most heavily-armed country in the world. “American Epidemic: Guns in the United States” collects photos from 10 different photographers that contemplate the violence, trauma, racism and other issues that arrise in a society where shootings are commonplace. You'll find images by Carolyn Drake, Nancy Floyd, Stephen Foster, Andres Gonzalez, Félix González-Torres, Deborah Luster, Zora J Murff, Renée Stout, and Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi in the exhibit. If you're going to visit, make sure to secure a timed reservation via the Museum of Contemporary Photography's website. 

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  • Art
  • Contemporary art
  • Streeterville

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents a survey that encapsulates two decades of work by Pakistani artist Bani Abidi, a former student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Known for her video, photography and sound works, Abidi satirizes displays of power and nationalism as she explores the geopolitical relationship between India and Pakistan as well as the historical power struggles of South Asia. The exhibit takes its name from Abidi's watercolor series "The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared," which depicts writers, political leaders and bloggers from Pakistan that have disappeared over the past decade.

  • Art
  • Painting
  • Streeterville

Los Angeles–based artist Christina Quarles paints bodies, but not in the way you'd expect. Instead of straightforward studies of the human form, her canvases demonstrate a disregard for gravity and anatomy that finds torsos, limbs and faces arranged in surreal ways. This Museum of Contemporary Art show is her largest exhibition yet, focusing on her output over the past three years, including a large-scale installation that incorporates illusions.

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  • Things to do
  • Exhibitions
  • Loop
  • price 2 of 4

Part of a chain of trippy “edutainment” destinations founded in Zagreb, Croatia, the Museum of Illusions Chicago is packed with mind-bending photo-ops. Loaded with more than 80 exhibitions, the interactive experience allows you to become a part of various illusions (and snap some primo Instagram pics along the way). Popular installation include a scale-distorting Ames room, a mirrored Infinity room, a glowing Vortex tunnel and an Anti-Gravity room.

  • Art
  • Installation
  • 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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