Director soothes the soul with the extraordinary displays at Chicago’s Peninsula hotel – then stirs the mind with the stunning arts scene blossoming in the surrounding streets
“Wherever we lag behind LA or New York as far as the ‘blue chip’ art world is concerned,” says Chicago artist James Jankowiak, “we make up for it by putting stock into thoughtful art.” Any serious art aficionado drawn to the city by Jankowiak’s bold claim won’t leave disappointed.
The Windy City is a thriving performing arts hub – its blues and jazz scene rivals that of New Orleans, and improv comedy is widely believed to have been invented here.
But it’s the static arts that will nourish the visitor who comes seeking soul-feeding quietude. If you’re pushed for time and want to take in the ‘biggies’, accommodation is key: and The Peninsula Chicago is the art buff’s choice, not just in terms of location but also for the displays within its towering walls.
This elegant five-star hotel is undergoing a massive refurbishment, to be completed by April, with renowned architect Bill Rooney overseeing a guestroom overhaul. His brief is to create contemporary, cosmopolitan interiors that sync with the hotel’s setting in the heart of the city, and draw from the French Art Deco style of its public areas.
For all the fine macassar wood finishes, rich leathers and custom-designed Pratesi linen in the rooms, guests may find it takes a good hour to get from street to suite. In the lobby, the seasoned art lover will be detained by a vast installation of backlit glass panels in shades of yellow, green and blue by Rhode Island’s Paul Housberg, as well as five etchings opposite the lifts by Irish-born artist Sean Scully.
The main lobby is graced by Floating Floral – a soft pastel acrylic work – and three Cubist landscapes by LA artists Jeff Bedrick and Susan Woods. The hotel’s expansive collection gets even more impressive the higher up you go, with works by Sol LeWitt, Martha Diamond, Charles Arnoldi, Robert Mangold and the famous artist-architect, Le Corbusier, making this 20-storey building a repository of meticulously chosen contemporary fare.
Meanwhile, The Peninsula’s location on the corner of East Superior Street and North Michigan Avenue means it is perfectly poised for on-foot jaunts to the city’s major art centres.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is a five-minute walk – via the observatory on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center, if you fancy some of nature’s finest artistry, the turquoise expanse of Lake Michigan – and consistently puts on thoughtfully displayed exhibitions, despite not being built for purpose (it’s a former National Guard armoury).
The 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs that comprise the Surrealism: The Conjured Life exhibition, which runs until June, trace the movement from its origins in the 1930s to the present.
If more recognisable works are your cerebral cup of chamomile, walking a mile or so directly south will bring you to the Art Institute of Chicago, where the spoils of a vast donation in April 2015 – which included masterpieces by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Charles Ray, Cindy Sherman and Roy Lichtenstein – mingle with instantly recognisable artworks such as the most dour of Van Gogh’s 30-plus self-portraits and Edward Hopper’s unfathomably pacifying Nighthawks.
Of course, no art tour of any major city begins and ends with the world-renowned institutions. You could spend a week in the US’s third-largest city exploring urban pockets that have become magnets for art lovers without even scratching the surface.
In particular, try the Bridgeport area, home to the warehouse-sized eponymous art centre and its rival Zhou B, and the Chicago Arts District in Pilsen, where organised walks through the 30-odd small galleries around the corner of 18th and Halsted take place the second Friday of every month.
Taking in the full scope of everything the Chicago art world has to offer really requires a comprehensive guidebook, map and pencil. Start in the Peninsula’s main bar, and you’ll have Smoke Rings, an etching by North Carolina printmaker Donald Sultan, and six modern lithographs by Le Corbusier to inspire you.