Chicago's new Logan Center: expect the unexpected


The University of Chicago has long been known for pushing boundaries and challenging expectations. The new Reva and David Logan Center for the arts is no exception. Less than a year old—the building had a “soft-opening” in March 2012, then celebrated with the three-day Logan Launch Festival in October—the Logan Center has already demonstrated its strong commitment to the study, practice, and presentation of art that is experimental, multi-disciplinary, and engaging.

The glass and limestone structure stands out amid the Neo-Gothic buildings on the UofC campus, punctuated with an 11-story tower. The Center, designed by husband and wife team Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, feels light and open. The tower offers impressive sweeping views of Hyde Park, and as you make your way down the staircase at the south end of the tower you can see the solar paneled-roof of one arm of the Center and the grass roof of another. Williams and Tsien said their design was inspired by urban landscapes and the prairie, with the tower referencing both the city’s skyscraper tradition and silos rising from the Midwestern prairies.

This blending of styles and references is a theme that carries through the Logan Center. The space was designed to foster cross-disciplinary encounters and collaborations. With art studios, screening rooms, theaters, classrooms, exhibitions and rehearsal spaces the building allows for dynamic interactions between students, faculty and members of the larger Hyde Park and Chicago community.

“We thinking about the Center as a portal between north and south,” said Monika Szewczyk, Visual Arts Program Curator. “We very much want to be open to and engage the South Side community as well as the campus.” The building itself is designed to support this. The box office entrance is located on the south end of the building, making two main entrances—there is also one at the north end—and a symbolic flow of energy from both ends of the city. For Szewczyk, who leads Logan Center Exhibitions, his idea of openness is important.

It was for this reason that Szewczyk felt so strongly about presenting Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum’s signature project, would you like to participate in an artistic experience. “It was crucial [at the outset] to set an inquisitive tone,” explained Szewczyk— “and Basbaum’s project, which revolves around [a] loaded question does this beautifully. It also connects the program of Logan Center Exhibitions into a global network of practice and inquiry”

Basbaum launched would you like to participate in an artistic experience in 1994. Centered around a heavy metal object called “New Bases for Personality”(NBP) and painted white with royal blue trim, the dimensions are approximately 49” x 31.5” x 7”. The NBPs are meant to live outside the gallery for participants to do with as they please. When resting on the ground, the object looks almost like a miniature ice rink. Since 1994 NBPs have been used in artistic expressions in over 40 cities across four continents. “However generous the project may sound, it demands a lot in return,” said Szewcyzk of the challenge of the person (or group of people) in possession of the object.

The exhibition, which was on view at the Logan Center this past fall, highlighted through documentation and diagrams some of the ways that the community used the NBPs. One clever example is the MFA student Tucker Rae-Grant, who worked with librarians to incorporate the NBP into the The Joseph Regenstein Library collection where it could be checked-out like any piece of media in circulation.

This project by its very nature resists exhibition in a traditional sense, questioning notions about the function of a gallery. As Szewczyk explained, “this work was perfect for a non-collecting entity, and it was a way to repurpose the white cube [in our case] as a type of lab—a place for experimentation.”

The gallery, however, is not the only place where visitors will find exhibitions. Running concurrently with would you like to participate in an artistic experience was Wall Text. Co-curated by Szewczyk and Zachary Cahill, Open Practice Committee Coordinator, the show featured 25 text-based works by 10 artists with strong ties to the UofC community, including Jenny Holzer, that were displayed on walls (and windows, in the case of Anthony Elms, who was recently named curator of the Whitney Biennial along with Michelle Grabner and Stuart Comer) throughout the building. The exhibition is accompanied by a booklet produced by artist David Giordano. More than merely an explanatory text, the booklet raises crucial questions and serves as one of the art works in the exhibition. Giordano’s essay stresses how this exhibition challenges and often essential element of traditional exhibitions: “Wall texts explicate an artwork’s historical trajectory...yet, what happens when the text on the wall is the art itself and provides its own context through the use of language? Does it change our relationship to images? Is the wall itself changed through language? Are there texts without language?”

Probing questions such as these are ones visitor will continue to encounter through the Logan Center’s roughly 10 exhibitions per year. The shows are curated by Szewczyk as well as guest curators, as in the case of Wall Text, and the Center will also present shows curated and including works by MFA students, whose studios are located in the building. “I am excited about this mix of very young artists with others who are veterans of documenta (international exhibition of Modern and Contemporary art in Kassel, Germany)” said Szewcyzk.

In conjunction with the exhibitions, the Logan Center will present a variety of programs that will include visiting visual artists, dancers, musicians and partnerships with the Open Practice Committee Coordinator, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, the Arts + Public Life initiative, and others.

In 2007 the University of Chicago announced that David and Reva Logan and their sons and grandchildren made a record $35 million gift to support the building of a center dedicated to performance and creative arts. Both UofC alumni, David and Reva were longtime supporters of the arts and generous philanthropists. They envisioned the Center as a means to improve the quality of life for students and faculty of the University as well as the community. Judging by the pace so far, it seems the Logans’ vision will not be compromised.