12/30/2011 02:22 pm ET

Best Chicago Art Of 2011: Galleries And Exhibitions That Put The City On The Map (PHOTOS)

As 2011 winds to an end, we reached out to some of Chicago's experts in style, music, art and more to share some of their favorite places, people and things of the year. Already this week, Pete Zimmerman of CHIRP Radio and The Steve Dahl Show rounded up his favorite Chicago bands, albums and songs of 2011. Thursday, Refinery 29's Chicago Editor Shani Silver shared the local shops and designers she admired this year, while the crew at Chicago Theater Beat revealed their picks for the city's best plays of the year.

Below, ArtSlant Chicago Editor Abraham Ritchie shares his picks for the top contemporary art exhibits, galleries and other highlights from the year in contemporary art.

2011 was a solid year for art in Chicago, with quality art appearing in all areas of the city consistently throughout the year. The galleries in the 119 North Peoria Street building, threewalls, Western Exhibitions and Golden Age, were consistently strong all year and deserve a special nod, as they will get below. Steps away from Peoria Street, 65GRAND had excellent exhibitions particularly in painting and, unexpectedly, the monochrome. Though we had to bid goodbye as some of our favorite galleries closed this year: Golden Age, Walsh Gallery and Noble and Superior Projects, the city's continued artistic and intellectual vitality assures us new visions are already emerging. Promising galleries like Ebersmoore, Chicago Urban Art Society and Alderman Exhibitions have taken part in the annual migration to bigger and better spaces. Going into 2012, there are many reasons to be optimistic.

10. Nato Thompson's keynote speech for "Hand in Glove Conference"
Nato Thompson's keynote speech to kickoff the Hand-in-Glove Conference from threewalls (see number three) was provocative, humorous and insightful. Bits of Thompson's speech have been turning over in my mind, about how collectors impose their taste on others through the art institutions they support, his thoughts on #occupy and #occupymuseums, and especially his point, "art today is either nothing or everything, right?"

9. The Essential New Art Examiner (Northern Illinois University Press, 2011)
I first became really interested in the New Art Examiner (1973-2002) when Bad at Sports interviewed Derek Guthrie in 2008, episode 168. The episode eventually attracted 284 comments from visitors, with the discussion becoming extremely heated and reaching a low point when an artist challenged someone to drop by his studio for a fist fight. Unfortunately this led directly to Bad at Sports removing the comment function, but it did intrigue many who never knew the New Art Examiner that the publication could arouse such passion. Like many defunct print publications the New Art Examiner has no web presence or archive so its only life was stashed away in libraries. If you wanted a copy you had to get one from someone that had held on to it.

This collection of essays, reviews and articles helps to reveal a little of a feisty magazine that would run a transcript of a speech by Hilton Kramer and the next month run an interview with Hans Haacke attacking Kramer. There's talk of more volumes to come and let's hope that we get more of this lost art history.

8. Chicago Urban Art Society and "The Chicago Street Art Show"
While the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art was breaking their attendance records with the street art exhibition "Art in the Streets," Chicago’s institutions remained completely indifferent to street art -- all the institutions except the Chicago Urban Art Society (CUAS), another vital non-profit in Chicago. Responding to Chicago's rich street art scene they hosted an exhibition featuring active participants. The transition to the gallery proved challenging for some artists, but that only made the show more compelling, more necessary, so these artists could have a chance to work in a different direction. (Full disclosure- after the exhibition closed I wrote an essay for a publication related to the exhibition.) CUAS has also hosted a number of other notable exhibitions this year including a survey of artists working with wood, and a solo exhibition from the Post Family, which Steve Ruiz preemptively nominated in July for "best presented exhibition in Chicago this year."

Installation view of (T)HUG LIFE(?) in "Chicago Street Art Show" at Chicago Urban Art Society. Image courtesy of Thomas Fennell IV and the gallery.

7. "Two Histories of the World" curated by Karsten Lund, featuring artists Mara Baker, Sara Black, Laura Davis and Mike Schuh
Given the abundance of derelict warehouses in Chicago and the historic success of warehouse art exhibitions (see "Freeze" and the Young British Artists) I'm always surprised that I don't see more exhibitions taking place in Chicago warehouses. Fortunately Karsten Lund, recently appointed as a Curatorial Assistant at the MCA, broke that trend this year with his "Two Histories of the World" located in a sprawling salvage warehouse. The site forced the visitor to consider their senses in addition to sight, as the "no touching" rule of galleries was no longer in force, odors of urine both feline and human alternated in strength and as sounds of dripping water and unseen forces made noises in the cavernous building. Arguably, Mike Schuh took the biggest artistic risk of the year by not identifying any of his work on view, nor its location and allowing that the business of the salvage warehouse could destroy his work entirely. The visitor also actively risked something just entering the warehouse; we were advised to wear closed-toe shoes and to enter at our own risk. It will be fun to see Lund bring his sense of risk-taking to the MCA, I'm looking forward to his first project there.

Works from "Two Histories of the World, Part One." Photo by Abraham Ritchie.

6. Western Exhibitions
Western Exhibitions made my "Best of 2010" list last year and they've done it again this year. Run by Scott Speh, this gallery takes ambitious risks, like "Heads on Poles." Curated by Paul Nudd and Scott Wolniak, "Heads" was an exhibition of sculptural works that followed the titular theme. The results were humorous while being artistically and aesthetically intriguing -- each artist contributed a work that related distinctly to their oeuvre. Western also hosted a survey of new artwork from New Orleans, curated by Keith Couser (another museum-level concept) and brought in Jose Lerma for a highly anticipated solo exhibition. They presented art that features text prominently in "People Don’t Like to Read Art" in one of the best group exhibitions of the summer. While other galleries in West Loop have presented art that is quite safe (and dull), Western Exhibitions continues to take risks -- and the gallery gets noticed for it.

Western Exhibitions' "Heads on Poles" exhibit. Photo courtesy ArtSlant Chicago.

To check out the rest of Ritchie's top picks for contemporary art in Chicago in 2011, read the full list here.

Ritchie also shared a series of new year's (art) resolutions containing his hopes for what the city's artistic communities will learn to let go of in 2012. Toward the top of that list, Ritchie argues: Bad graffiti.

"If you are tagging K-FED you need to rethink that. Likewise, if you're plastering tiny pictures of switchblades accompanied by WEED WOLF you're only reinforcing the stereotype. Give it up guys, you're making everyone look bad, and more than that, you're actively reversing the progress of the art form. There was a lot of good street art this year, but there was just as much crap."

And Ritchie also hopes the city will give it a rest when it comes public art of questionable merit. (Sorry, he's looking at you, Marilyn.)

An example, according to Ritchie, of some subpar Chicago street art.