For me, exploring the galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago goes beyond merely observing art. As I walk through the exhibits, I look at the people experiencing it with me. Smiling faces of wonder and awe — it’s what makes art so beautiful. It’s not something we can always understand, but it’s something we can more or less feel. I always thought of art as a sort of bookmark in the history of human emotion, something that we don’t always see but can sense and feel resonating deep within us and allowing us to unconsciously experience what others have felt before. When I look around at the others in the galleries with me, I know that we are united in that moment. From laughing at Renaissance babies, to being mesmerized by the newest abstract painting in the contemporary gallery, there’s something for everyone at the Art Institute. As one of the most famous museums in the country, the galleries have always been packed full of people. It was always hard to get one of the more well-known pieces of art alone to yourself, until now.
Every time I walk through the now-deserted galleries, I think back to last fall’s Andy Warhol exhibit. It was the first special exhibit I experienced at the Art Institute, and it was huge. The pop art covering the walls, the bright colors, the open walkway that led to a giant portrait of Mao Zedong. The crowds that surrounded me were overwhelming. I could barely see over the people. I could barely move, and the conversations were so loud I couldn’t hear. I loved it. All these people were here for the same reason I was: To enjoy art. Conversations passed by me — I always enjoyed hearing what other people had to say. A group of friends stopped me to ask if I could take their photo in front of the entrance. It was an intense experience of art and life coming together, and one I will always remember.
March began approaching, and as COVID worsened, the museum became a completely different experience. I was there on the last day before it closed for the summer. It was like I watched the galleries empty in real-time. I saw the worried looks on the peoples’ faces as I made my way into the Modern Wing. Fear and confusion was a widespread emotion at that time. This was back when social distancing was a new concept, and before masks became mandatory. No one knew what was happening and no one knew what was safe. I had gone to the galleries because I thought it would bring me a sense of comfort or normalcy, but I was wrong. With every passing glance I saw the same fear that I had, an anxious fear of the unknown. I made sure to not to be too close to others. I avoided areas with more than three people. It didn’t feel right. I felt lost and distanced — it wasn’t like the unity the galleries once knew. I left maybe 30 minutes after I arrived. Right after I passed through the exit doors and started my way back to my dorm, I got an alert on my phone that the Art Institute galleries would close indefinitely.
I remember returning to the galleries for the first time this August. The first thing I wanted to do upon returning to campus was to go to the museum. My parents and my sister went with me, excited to see Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon.” The painting is one of the most popular areas of the museum thanks to Ferris Bueller, which is exactly why they wanted to see it. I reminded them that we likely wouldn’t be able to get a photo alone. The Impressionism gallery is always packed full of visitors. But when we arrived at the painting, it was just me and my family alone.
It was the first time I’ve ever seen the painting alone. It felt like being in a different world, and if I weren’t next to my family, as they asked me to take photos, I could’ve stood there for hours.
I still go to the museum every week keeping that moment in mind. I follow the arrows that direct me where to go, keep six feet away from the few others in the gallery, and feel my glasses fog up from the breath escaping my mask. As I do this, I reflect on how different everything is. As happy as I am to be able to go to the museum again, it’s just not the same. There’s a certain hesitation that comes with approaching others, a feeling that is present beyond just the white walls of the galleries. It is as if the galleries are showing us how art truly reflects our lives. Each moment of confusion, fear, loss, and discomfort that this year has made us feel is manifest in these galleries.
The deserted galleries are both a blessing and a curse. A personal one-on-one experience with artworks from the most renowned artists is something I am very grateful for, but something is missing. I miss the conversations, the smiles of the people passing by, the people who would strike up conversations as we look at the same painting. I don’t see this as the end of the museum experience we once knew. I like to think of this as a fresh start, a blank canvas. We can rewrite the gallery experience into one that reflects ourselves and our lives in a new way. There are no doubts in my mind that this year will be one that will change us forever. As we learn and grow we do everything we can to change for the better. I can only hope that this can bring us together. If art truly captures the complexity of life and emotion, then I am certain that we will see the galleries transform into a place where this new growth is seen and heard by all.