DePaul University’s art museum used to be one of the best-kept secrets in Chicago. Founded in 1985, the museum was “concealed” in the same building as DePaul’s Richardson Library, director Louise Lincoln recalls. Its invisibility was a shame: During the past three years alone, the museum’s exhibitions included innovative looks at contemporary Iranian art, African-American photographers and artists’ responses to the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
When it opens the “Re: Chicago” exhibition September 17, the DePaul Art Museum will be hard to miss: The show launches the museum’s new $7.8 million building at 935 West Fullerton Avenue. Designed by Antunovich Associates, the three-story, 15,200-square-foot brick structure has a vast, arched glass window on the ground floor, which invites passersby to look inside. Passengers waiting for northbound trains at the Fullerton El stop can look into a second-floor window, where a flat-screen TV will flash messages and artwork.
“We see that opportunity for the public to look in the front window and see what’s going on as a metaphorical way of looking at what’s going on in the university. It’s part of a whole reinvigorating of the arts at DePaul,” Lincoln tells me during a recent tour, citing the construction of new facilities for the school’s theater and music departments. “We will be a mini arts corridor [in Lincoln Park].”
The new building is more than twice the size of the museum’s former home, and Lincoln is glad to have adequate classroom and event spaces at last, as well as a gallery dedicated to the permanent collection. That gallery will be absorbed, however, into “Re: Chicago,” an exhibition that called on 41 local curators, historians, collectors and critics to nominate “a Chicago artist who is famous, used to be famous but no longer is, or ought to be famous,” Lincoln says. “We traditionally do a Chicago-themed show every fall.”
“Re: Chicago” doesn’t overturn the Chicago art canon. Approximately half the works come from DePaul’s collection, and the artists include familiar figures such as Henry Darger, Christina Ramberg and Dawoud Bey. But “there are some really unexpected people,” Lincoln says. “Carl Hoeckner was a surprise to me: He was a printmaker in the ’30s and ’40s, most of whose work got destroyed.”
“Re: Chicago” is bound to irritate visitors. Some of its artists deserve to be obscure, while some of these “Chicago artists” have left for Brooklyn. But as I admire a sculpture by contemporary artist Juan Angel Chávez, which almost fills one of the spacious, beautifully lit galleries, DePaul’s investment in its museum seems like an encouraging sign. “The show skews more than I expected to emerging and young artists,” Lincoln says, “which suggests to me that the art world is not in such bad shape these days in Chicago.”
“Re: Chicago”• DePaul Art Museum, 935 W Fullerton Ave (773-325-7506) • Sept 17–Feb 2012; free