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They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910–1950

March 3, 2013–June 2, 2013
Galleries 182–184

During the first half of the 20th century, the city of Chicago was shaped and reshaped by waves of migration and immigration as African Americans poured in from the South and newcomers arrived from Europe and Mexico. They Seek a City is the first exhibition to focus on the art produced by the wonderfully diverse communities that made Chicago their home. Over 80 works primarily by southern- and foreign-born artists—many rarely seen by the museum’s audiences—come together for this look at the city’s rich art of migration, as Chicago became the polyglot, cosmopolitan place that it remains today.

Migration and immigration were typical American experiences during the early 20th century. Over 1.6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to more industrial areas of the North and Midwest in what has become known as the Great Migration. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of European immigrants crossed the ocean, often fleeing political or religious persecution in their homelands, and thousands of Mexicans journeyed north in search of better economic opportunity, a movement that coincided with a tremendous vogue for Mexican culture among U.S. residents.

Chicago was an extremely popular destination for these various populations, an unfamiliar setting that offered challenges and excitement. The artists among them responded by mining their personal and cultural contexts for inspiration. They frequently focused on the underlying social causes of migration or immigration, including violence and persecution, and addressed common themes of exile and assimilation. Significantly, many artists from different communities formed relationships, sharing educational, institutional, political, and aesthetic affiliations that crossed ethnic, racial, and social boundaries.

Highlighting this diverse yet interwoven artistic production, They Seek a City includes paintings, works on paper, photographs, sculpture, and decorative arts from local cultural institutions and private collectors as well as from the permanent collection of the Art Institute. By examining the art of the city through the lens of migration, the exhibition not only traces Chicago’s rich and dynamic cultural development but also explores some of the most important social and artistic questions of the early 20th century, including the intersecting issues of racial and cultural identity.

Related Events and Exhibitions
See all related programming.

Continue to investigate the themes and issues explored in They Seek a City with Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College, on view at the Chicago Cultural Center March 23–June 16.

Tell Us Your Story
Whether it was last year or last century, every family has a migration story to tell. Share yours with us today at All submissions will be automatically entered for a chance to win a They Seek a City exhibition catalogue.

Listen to three Chicagoans tell their stories.


They Seek a City is organized by the Art Institute of Chicago.

Accompanying the exhibition is a lavishly illustrated catalogue written by Sarah Kelly Oehler, exhibition curator and Henry and Gilda Buchbinder Associate Curator of American Art.

Lead Sponsor

Annual support provided by the Exhibitions Trust: Goldman Sachs, Kenneth and Anne Griffin, Thomas and Margot Pritzker, the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation, the Trott Family Foundation, and the Woman’s Board of the Art Institute of Chicago.