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Mute Impressions at the Art Institute

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Attempting to recover from the prancing and pawing of rooftop hooves the day after Christmas, I decided to spend the morning at the Art Institute of Chicago. Even before I checked my coat, I knew my visit would leave a mixed impression on me. As always, I expected to exit with an uplifted imagination but somewhat disappointed expectations.

I've been a member of the Art Institute since I moved into downtown Chicago almost four years ago. A visit there is one of my favorite things to do as a neighborhood resident, not in the least because I can walk to the place anytime I want to (read: numerous, hour-long visits that end whenever I feel over-out-of-towner-touristed).

While overall I've been suitably blown away by the breadth and depth of the permanent collection and temporary exhibits at the place, at the same time, I've also frequently felt let down by a lack of appropriate storytelling to give the average museum goer a true impression of the wonderfulness of the objects on view.

An educated art connoisseur might have no problem navigating around a room full of French art, American period furniture, or Hindu iconography, but the Art Institute's ongoing lack of useful, plain-English explanations on text walls and wall cards unnecessarily leaves average visitors scratching their heads--or hurrying through gallery after gallery with the puzzling feeling that they should be getting more out of their Art Institute visit than they unfortunately are.

Throwing poorly labeled exhibits before Chicago audiences seems to be an epidemic among Windy City museums. Pick a museum--art, science, history--it doesn't matter. For years I've groused about bad wall cards at several of them.

In 2006, I found unhelpfully dry and wooden wall text displayed throughout the Art Institute's otherwise awe-inspiring Casas Grandes ancient American pottery exhibition. The following year, I found inaccurate wall cards at the Museum of Contemporary Art, out-dated signage at the Chicago History Museum, and frozen-in-time explications at the Adler Planetarium. Last year I hit the Trifecta, and found broken, aged, anachronistic exhibits and matching wall cards at the Museum of Science and Industry.

With the Art Institute's ongoing thoughtful, thorough re-hanging of almost its entire collection due to the construction of the soon-to-open Modern Wing, I hoped updated walls of artwork would be graced with updated wall cards--or even wall cards at all.

I've lived in Chicago long enough to know the local definition of success includes a comfortingly healthy component of shoot-self-in-foot-itis. Unfortunately, this qualified type of success remains on display at the Art Institute.

There's a lot going on inside that lion-guarded entrance that's good. Newly reopened Impressionism galleries are in completely new spaces with art much more thoughtfully arranged, giving a terrific idea of the breadth and sweep of the movement. The unexpected placement of Seurat's pointillist masterpiece, La Grande Jatte, framed in breathtaking fashion by the walls of a connector hallway behind Caillebotte's equally iconic Paris Street, Rainy Day literally stopped me in my tracks.

The new (deep breath now) Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art are similarly stunning, with more fine statuary and sculptures of Eastern religious icons and figures than I've certainly ever seen displayed in one place before. Don't miss the bird's-eye view of this new take on Gunsaulus Hall from the east stairs down from Impressionism.

But don't forget to take an art history book with you if you visit either new gallery. Because aside from the wall-card explanations that accompany only the most iconic artworks in each collection, the Art Institute otherwise remains mute about the items on view and the stories that they, their makers, and their movements have to tell about the meaning of art in the world we all share.

Considering the importance of the Impressionist collection, alone, why wouldn't--or shouldn't--there be wall texts giving visitors a capsule history of the works on view, the relationships between the artists, and the role the works and the schools that contain them played in the history of art? Or at least a brochure or handout? After all that re-hanging work, why leave the average museum patron to figure out the actual art for themselves?

Wall text would also be especially helpful in the new Alsdorf galleries where works from distinct religious traditions are sitting side-by-side in the same display cases, as if there were no differences between Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. (Can you imagine the outcry if the museum haphazardly jumbled together Christian and Jewish iconography with no good explanation?)

It isn't as if the museum is ignorant of broader explications. They (and all museums) use that kind of deep storytelling to accompany temporary and traveling exhibitions. I've found at the Art Institute, though, that even in those instances the spirit of the story tends to be lost once words hit walls.

This season's Divine Art tapestry exhibition is no exception. The show's brochure gives a great idea of the background and importance of the ancient, oversized textiles. Little of that useful text, however, made it onto the actual walls, the museum opting instead for the same kind of dry, inscrutable, professor-ish language it used to equally flat effect during Casas Grandes in 2006. And given that light levels are kept low in this show to protect old fabric, how hard would it have been to make larger wall cards with bigger fonts so people could actually read them, instead of (I kid you not, folks) handing out magnifying glasses?

Or how about the deliberate juxtaposition of similar photographs with key drawings and paintings in the current Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Art and Photography of Paris exhibition? For all the wordiness of the wall text that introduces this exhibit, nowhere is this thought-provoking placement noted. When I was there on December 26th, few visitors in the downstairs photography gallery even noticed the careful hanging. Would it have been a difficult thing simply to point it out in the wall text?

Giving some thought to telling the actual stories of the schools, genres, and works on display in any given museum seems like an obvious and useful way to present art to lay patrons--like me and probably like you--who make up the majority of museum visitors, doesn't it?

For years I've wondered why Chicago museums (with the notable exception of the newly refurbished Chicago History Museum) refuse to actually do this sort of comprehensive storytelling. Simple blind spot about the hardly useful way things have traditionally been presented? Classist prejudice that museums should cater only to the better educated among us? (As if anyone could be suitably educated in everything to make useful wall cards obsolete.)

What I do know is Chicago museums are working very hard to update their collections and reposition themselves as popular destinations amid a dangerously declining economy. That's why a place like the Art Institute asking twelve dollars a person from an occasionally visiting family of four for the privilege of leaving with a puzzled impression leaves me with one, too.

Someday I hope all our city's exhibiting institutions decide to spend some time devising--and then telling--the compelling stories of their works on view instead of keeping them a secret. Whether that comes to pass, of course, is all in the cards.

The wall cards, that is.