Artistic Discoveries at the Chicago Children's Museum
By GINNY VAN ALYEA
At the start of summer I found myself at Navy Pier purely for family adventure and not to spend days walking Festival Hall during an art fair. As it was a cold, windy day we weren't able to enjoy the outdoors for long – we spent 30 minutes playing a wet, quick round of Putt Putt golf, and having paid for parking and determined to get our money's worth, we set out to see Chicago's number one tourist destination as tourists in our hometown.
Before heading indoors from mini golf, we walked into Polk Bros. Park, at the west end of the Pier. Thanks to EXPO CHICAGO, the annual rotation of public art installation, part of IN/SITU Outside, gives any visitor to the Pier a reason to come back to see new art long after EXPO ends in April. Derrick Adams's Fun Time Any Time was still on view when we visited (it came down after June 25) and the shiny black unicorns were unoccupied. It fell to my family to show other onlookers that the art could, in fact, be interactive and fun. Adams's quartet of magical creatures are also vehicles for leisure as well as cultural understanding. Both adults and children took turns riding the glossy, rainbow-maned unicorns, with my seven year-old son looking like he was training for the Triple Crown.
The Navy Pier of today is, thankfully, a far cry from the tired, worn, heavily carpeted Pier of the late '90s and 2000s. A major overhaul, unfortunately timed right around the pandemic, managed to update and refresh all the surfaces and spaces and to also introduce new destinations. The food court is still the food court, and throngs of people still gobble up Garrett's Popcorn and overpay for branded souvenirs and tchotchkes, but the overall look is light and airy and sleek. This may be a tourist destination but it is a modern, very Chicago-style one.
After a little lunch (at Harry Caray's – not modern but still fun) we found ourselves standing outside the entrance to the Chicago Children's Museum. We hadn't visited the museum in about 6 years, but now that my children are 7 and 9, and familiar with hand sanitizer, they were desperate to go inside, so off we went. There was much more to do for older children than I remembered, and the art on display, as well as the many creative activities, was prominent. Outside the museum on the south side of Navy Pier near the tour boat docks, we had seen one of Hebru Brantley's towering Flyboys installed, a kid dressed as a hero and ready to take off or at least make some art. Inside the museum Hebru himself could be seen, at the entrance to the art lab in a display explaining the benefits of getting messy and expressing your ideas on paper. A selection of completed art studio works by children are on installed in a glass case nearby. I personally enjoyed seeing a visual artist positioned as an inspirational super star rather than an athlete or movie star.
At the entrance to the art studio, an illuminated sign quotes Hebru Brantley in both Spanish and English,
"From Kirby's Clubhouse to Sky Studio, my hope is that in these spaces, you will feel free to immerse and express yourself in all sorts of creative ways."
Just down the walkway from the art studio is a climbable sculpture available to kids and adults alike, as long as you don a helmet. Titled Cloud Buster, the structure by Kevin Winters is built out of steel, wood, wire, rope, acrylic, fiberglass and artificial turf. Winters was inspired by the structure of the particle accelerator complex at Fermilab in suburban Batavia, IL. Bringing art, design and physics together, Winters has created a dynamic playground in the sky through which to expend energy of another sort. After all, young visitors to the museum can be expected to stay still for only so long, even when they're making a mess in the art studio.
A visit to any museum wouldn't be complete without having to exit through the gift shop (you also enter the museum here), but in addition to browsing toys and t-shirts for sale, you notice several handwoven, patterned sculptures suspended from the museum entrance's ceiling. Helpful signage visually identifies each work and which group of children created it. Some were crafted at the museum – collaborations between visitors and resident artists – while many others were made by local school groups. 200 visitors, community center members, students, and professional artists were invited to contribute to the collection. Each spinning work is made of yarn and is a tactile exploration of color, layering and storytelling - many resemble traditional Native American God's eyes that watch over and engage these bright, hopeful young minds that pass in and out of the Children's Museum in the heart of a busy city. These parting images from the museum are a reminder that art isn't always right in front of us on the wall, it is often above and all around us, waiting to be explored or even created.
The Chicago Children's Museum Offers Free Family Days
In 2023: Last Thursdays from January – May and September & October!
In partnership with Navy Pier, Chicago Children’s Museum guests can enjoy five fun-filled activities for families and children (ages ten and under) on the last Thursday of each month from January through May and two additional days of activities in September & October. Free admission to Chicago Children’s Museum. No pre-registration is required.
$10 discounted parking at Navy Pier with validation. Details here.