The 12 Best Chicago Museums You Might Not Have Heard Of

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 28, 2016 3:43PM

The three pillars of Chicago’s visual art scene—the Art Institute, the MCA, and the Cultural Center—are all within walking distance of each other downtown. It’s easy to get stuck in their excellent Bermuda triangle, but Chicago also has plenty of lesser-known gems, in Pilsen, Hyde Park, and even the Loop itself. To lift us all out of our art ruts, here are twelve art institutions you may have never seen before.

By Corrie Thompson

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Daniel Gordon, July 22, 2009, 2009 (via the Museum of Contemporary Photography)

Museum of Contemporary Photography
Free

An affiliate of Columbia College Chicago, MoCP shows emerging contemporary work as well as earlier photography, connecting the public to a continually expanding medium. Particularly relevant is their Midwest Photographer’s Project (MPP), a rotation of portfolios from regional artists. Visitors will find work from Jeffrey Wolin, known for his project documenting the residents of Pigeon Hill in Bloomington, Indiana, as well as the duo known as The Industry of the Ordinary, whose performance works examine everyday life. You can see recent installments of the MPP alongside the 40th anniversary exhibition, which opened Jan. 25.

Museum of Contemporary Photography is located at 600 S. Michigan Ave.

South Side Community Arts Center
Free

This art center was founded over 75 years ago by the arts division of the Works Progress Administration, President Roosevelt’s work program to end the Great Depression. In the case of SSCAC it provided employment for artists to use their skills. What’s more, this is the oldest African-American art center in the country, continuing to support local artists and their community today. Stop in for the current exhibition, "The Black Age of Comics."

The South Side Community Arts Center is located at 3831 S. Michigan Ave.

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The "Deportable Aliens" exhibition (via Yelp

National Museum of Mexican Art
Free

This museum has several exhibitions going regularly, and often loans pieces to other international institutions. Visit to explore a definitive collection of pieces ranging from ancient to contemporary, made within and beyond Mexico’s borders. Their current exhibition, "Deportable Aliens: New Work by Rodrigo Lara Zendejas", highlights the injustices of Mexican repatriation in the US in the 1930s; there's still time to see it before it closes on Feb. 28.

National Museum of Mexican Art is located at 1852 W. 19th St.

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Jessica Stockholder’s piece, "Rose’s Inclination" (via Facebook

Smart Museum of Art
Free

University of Chicago’s public art museum is named after the brothers who started it (and also, incidentally, Esquire magazine). Smart Museum has an eclectic, international collection, and visiting exhibitions ranging from landscapes to notes made in a Chinese prison. One current show is the bright, site-specific installation "Rose’s Inclination." Made from carpet, mulch, paint, cords, and much more, it both activates and overwhelms the lobby and courtyard.

Smart Museum of Art is located at 5550 S. Greenwood Ave.

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Wasyl Kacurovsky mixed media piece, 1999 (via the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art)

Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art
Free

This museum has two galleries, one of which is dedicated to a permanent collection of mostly Ukrainian art—such as the above abstract piece by Wasyl Kacurovsky, the museum’s first curator. However, the permanent collection also includes an international array of contemporary art. It's an eclectic mix, complemented by a second gallery that usually hosts a temporary exhibition. Since UIMA is in the heart of Ukrainian Village, you should probably get a pastry from Anne’s Deli down the street and look in one of the gorgeous Orthodox churches while you're in the neighborhood.

Ukrainian Institute of Modern art is located at 2320 W. Chicago Ave.

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Dogtags being cleaned for the "Above and Beyond" exhibit (via Facebook)

National Veterans Art Museum
Free

Across the street from the Portage Theater, NVAM originally started in 1981 as the Vietnam Veterans Art Group. They only collect work made by combat veterans, aiming to deepen understanding of the effects of combat for both civilians and veterans. There are two sobering shows opening in February; one, "Above and Beyond," is a large-scale installation made up of 58,000 dog tags, each representing a soldier lost in Vietnam, which will go up at Harold Washington Library.

National Veterans Art Museum is located at 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave., 2nd Floor

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Intuit's Henry Darger room (via Yelp)

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art
$5 donation suggested

This is the only nonprofit in the country dedicated solely to outsider art, made largely by untrained artists removed from the public's influence. Intuit makes this world accessible with immersive exhibitions, including an entire room permanently housing the contents of Henry Darger’s apartment. He spent almost 40 years working there reclusively, creating an epic illustrated story titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Intuit’s permanent collection also has over 1,000 pieces, and a vast study archive—it’s worth a few trips.

Intuit is located at 756 N. Milwaukee Ave.


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Wadada Leo Smith, "Ankhrasmation: The Language Scores," 1967-2015, installation view, 2015. (via Tom Van Eynde/Facebook

Renaissance Society
Free

If you have an itch to see experimental contemporary art, the Ren will scratch it with a rigorous schedule of events, publications, and exhibitions. Located at—but independent from—the University of Chicago, they are a non-collecting museum that often collaborates with other Chicago institutions, or commissions new work from artists. The upcoming show "Peter W├Ąchtler: Secrets of a Trumpet" is all new work, from bronze sculpture to watercolor, exploring various characters’ comically average struggles.

Renaissance Society is located at 5811 South Ellis Avenue, Cobb Hall, 4th floor

Loyola University Museum of Art
$9 for everyone

As part of the Catholic university, LUMA focuses on the spiritual in art, which is an interesting premise for any single exhibition, let alone for an entire collection. Visit this space for a query into holiness in human experience. "William Utermohlen: An Artist’s Persistence of Memory," on view now, delves into the relationship between Alzheimer’s disease and artistic practice with over 100 paintings that become more abstract as the artist’s condition becomes more severe.

The Loyola University Museum of Art is located at 820 N. Michigan Ave.

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The Stony Island Arts Bank's exterior (via Facebook)

Stony Island Arts Bank
Free

Most have probably heard about Theaster Gates’ ambitious project, converting a gorgeous former bank building in South Shore—which has been a neighborhood landmark for decades—into a hub for arts and culture. Gates' vision for this space is for the residents of the neighborhood, visiting artists and scholars to collaborate on new ideas. Weekly drop-in screenings, workshops, and other events make it easy to access the collections housed in the building, which include Frankie Knuckles’ vinyl collection and thousands of slides from the University of Chicago and the Art Institute. The space is also home to the Rebuild Foundation, founded by Gates to restore the culture of underserved neighborhoods.

Stony Island Arts Bank is located at 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.

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Installation view of Oscar Luis Martinez paintings (courtesy of NMPRAC)

National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture
Free

Located in the historic Queen Anne-style stables at Humboldt Park, NMPRAC is a beautiful center with several galleries and event spaces, and a cafe coming soon. Right now you’ll find a large exhibition of vibrant paintings by the artist who first conceived of the museum, Oscar Luis Martinez, a contributor to the Chicago mural movement. The museum also currently has a traveling group show of carnival masks, "Las Caras Lindas: Intervenciones Actuales."

National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture is located at 3015 W. Division St.

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The "Castle Lizzadro" exhibit (via Yelp)

Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art
$5 for adults

Don’t worry, we had to look it up, too. “Lapidary” is the art of cutting and polishing stones, or the artist who does it. This museum lives up to its name, illuminating the intersection of geology and art with treasures both modern and ancient, as well as exhibits on the science behind gemstones. Named after lapidary hobbyist Joseph Lizzadro, the museum also hosts activities and events for the lapidary-curious. It’s definitely worth the trek out to Elmhurst.

The Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art is located at 220 Cottage Hill Ave. in Elmhurst

Corrie Thompson is a visual artist figuring out the post-grad life in Humboldt Park with her husband and toddler.