Art Institute Michigan Avenue building before the lionsons

125 Years on Michigan Avenue: The Early Years

Museum History

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James Allan
January 4, 2019

We have built this institute for the public … not the few.... I want all of Chicago here!

Charles L. Hutchinson, first museum president

On December 8, 2018, the Art Institute of Chicago celebrated the 125th anniversary of the museum’s Michigan Avenue building. While the building is a grand structure with a storied address, it is more than that to the Art Institute. It is home. For as much as the museum has expanded over the 125 years, it is anchored in this building—at the heart of the Art Institute’s success and very much in the heart of Chicago.

The Art Institute’s origin story dates to 1866 when a group of Chicago artists formed the Academy of Design to promote art and education in the growing city. The academy failed to find secure financial footing, and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts succeeded it in 1879, taking up rented space in a commercial building at the corner of State and Monroe in downtown Chicago.

Old site of Art Institute on Michigan and Van Buren

The Art Institute's former location at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Van Buren Street


Three years later, in 1882, the Board of Trustees voted to change the organization’s name to the Art Institute of Chicago. These visionary leaders also announced plans for a new home at the corner of Michigan and Van Buren. A custom-designed building opened in 1887, and Art Institute President Charles L. Hutchinson declared, “We have built this institute for the public … not the few. We want people to feel that this is their property. I want all of Chicago here!”

Heeding Hutchinson’s call, Chicagoans flocked to the new museum. And, just as visitors filled halls of the new building, a burgeoning collection filled the galleries. In a relatively short time, the Art Institute’s holdings demanded something bigger. By 1890 talk turned to the possibility of a new building—a truly permanent home. In October of that year, the Board authorized Hutchinson to negotiate with the Chicago Public Library and the World’s Columbian Exposition for the purpose of erecting a suitable building on the lake front.

Palace of Fine Arts photo from the World's Columbian Expositiion

The Palace of Fine Arts, designed for the World's Columbian Exposition


The Art Institute initially considered the option of moving to the Palace of Fine Arts in Jackson Park. Designed by Charles Atwood, this building was conceived as the only permanent structure at the 1893 World’s Fair. The handsome palace was an attractive option but for one key fact: it was not in the heart of the city but far to the south.

Photo of 1890 Interstate Exposition Building

The Interstate Industrial Exposition Building in 1890


A more appealing option was closer at hand: the site of the Interstate Industrial Exposition Building. This structure, completed shortly after the Great Chicago Fire, dominated the lake front and stood only two blocks from the Art Institute’s then current location. It was accessible not only to downtown office workers but to all Chicagoans—be they from the North, South, or West sides.

architectural rendereing of Art Institute's Michigan Avenue building showing the lions.

Perspective view of the museum, published in 1892


The board chose this site as the location for the Art Institute’s new home. In 1892, the city, through the Chicago Park District, offered the land to the Art Institute, and the Fair Corporation provided $200,000 for the building’s construction. The Art Institute contributed $265,000 from the sale of its soon-to-be former home at Michigan and Van Buren, and the museum raised $120,000 through public subscription. The Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge was hired to design the new museum, and the building was ready for occupancy by 1893.

Photo of 1893 World's Parliament of Religion

Site of 1893 World's Parliament of Religions (now Fullerton Hall)


The World’s Congress Auxiliary of the World Columbian Exposition occupied the building from May 1 through October 31. During this time the building hosted numerous gatherings and speakers, including Swami Vivekananda’s historic address to the World’s Parliament of Religions on September 11 of that summer. The Art Institute took possession of the building on November 1, and the museum formally opened with a members’ reception on December 8, 1893.

1894 photo of front of Art Institute

In 1894, with the lions en garde


The bronze lions that stand guard in front of the Michigan Avenue building debuted the following year. The final defining features on the exterior were terraces and a balustrade ringing the building, completed in 1910.

Photo of Art Institute around  1910

About 1910, with plenty of free parking


Additions on the museum’s campus followed over the next century, details of which will come in part two of this series dedicated to the museum's history. Stay tuned for "Hope Chest to Treasure Chest."

—James Allan, Executive Director of Planned Giving and Special Gifts

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