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10 Extraordinary Exhibitions Taking Place In Chicago This Year That You Simply Cannot Miss

Monet, Mandela, Marvel, Mother Nature, and more. There is something for everybody!

By Elliot McGowan

10 Extraordinary Exhibitions Taking Place In Chicago This Year That You Simply Cannot Miss

From Monet to Mother Nature, there is something for everybody!

With life gradually moving back towards the way it was before a global pandemic turned the world upside down, we can once again do the things we loved to do pre-2020. Travel, day trips, and cultural experiences are some of the many things we’ve had snatched away from us. There were times even those who weren’t necessarily frequent museum-goers would have done almost anything to be out exploring and experiencing some of the best exhibitions in Chicago.

Now, with the phenomenal array of museums in Chicago alive and kicking exclusive galleries have been extended, new special events have been created to celebrate the light at the end of the tunnel, and some unique exhibitions offer exceptional experiences after an unprecedented year.

If there is a time to experience firsthand the transformative power of art and the astounding feats of the human race, it is in 2021, after the last year we have had. Here are some of the most unique museum exhibitions happening in Chicago this year that you simply cannot miss.

1. The Obama Portraits

Image of the portraits of President Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald

The acclaimed portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama left The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in D.C. for the first time in June and arrived in Chicago for the first stop of their national five-city tour.

Kehinde Wiley painted the oil-on-canvas portrait of President Obama, while Amy Sherald painted the oil-on-linen portrait of the former First Lady. They made history when they were unveiled in February of 2018 as the first presidential portraits painted by black artists and have been met with immense acclaim ever since.

The tour is part of the Portrait Gallery’s four-year initiative to share its collection with people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to visit D.C. They went on display at the Art Institute of Chicago on June 18 and will stay there until they leave for New York on August 14 and then on to Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston before returning to The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in D.C.

You can read more about it here.

Where: Art Institute Of Chicago
Dates: June 18, 2021 – August 15, 2021
Website/Tickets: artic.edu/the-obama-portraits

2. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition showcases the awe and wonder of arguably one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements while allowing its visitors to experience this art from an Up-Close, Life-Sized, and Never-Before-Seen perspective.

Taking place in Chicago’s Oakbrook Center, Michelangelo’s most noteworthy masterpieces have been brought to life creating a long hallway of luminous artwork that’s unlike any perspective you’ll get elsewhere—not even the Vatican! A special printing technique emulates the look and feel of the original paintings so visitors can engage with the artwork in a way that was never before possible: seeing every detail, every brushstroke, and every color of the artist’s 34 frescoes.

You can read more about it here.

Where: Oakbrook Center
Dates: May 19, 2021 – August 15, 2021
Website/Tickets: sistinechapelexhibit.com/chicago

3. Frida Kahlo: Timeless

When it comes to the most important and influential painters in history Frida Kahlo will always be one of the first names that come to mind. In many ways, however, without an insight into her character, her mentality, and her significant experiences, a viewer is only scratching the surface. Images of Frida Kahlo’s most iconic creations can be found online, but simply viewing them through a screen has never been more than a shrouded, one-dimensional glimpse at her world. Luckily for residents of Chicagoland, a mesmerizing new exhibition of the Mexican painter’s life has now taken over the Cleve Carney Museum of Art in Glen Ellyn.

Running through summer until September 6, 2021, Frida Kahlo: Timeless offers a presentation of the life and works of Frida Kahlo. Featuring 26 original pieces within an expansive and immersive historical exhibit, it is the largest exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s work to come to the Chicago area in over 40 years. Grab your tickets here.

Where: Cleve Carney Museum of Art
Dates: June 5, 2021 – September 6, 2021
Website/Tickets: theccma.org/frida-kahlo

4. Marvel: Universe Of Super Heroes

MoPOP Marvel Opening (Photo by Christine Mitchell)

News released early last year sent Marvel fans into hysteria when The Museum of Science and Industry announced dates for their interactive new exhibit Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes. It was set to open on Thursday, October 8, 2020, but… well you know, 2020 happened.

The interactive exhibition instead opened on March 4, 2021, celebrates Marvel history with more than 300 artifacts. Guests can delve into the origins and histories of iconic characters like Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, reading about how they evolved alongside society over the past 80+ years from their inception to their place in modern-day Marvelmania.

Original comic book pages, sculptures, and a whole load of fantastic interactive displays offer a day of unparalleled Marvel fun. With costumes and props from Marvel’s record-breaking blockbuster films, there is something for all ages and all different levels of Avengers-enthusiast.

You can read more about it here.

Where: Chicago Museum of Science + Industry
Dates: March 4, 2021 – September 6, 2021
Website/Tickets: msichicago.org/marvel-universe-of-super-heroes

5. Human+Nature

Image from Morton Arboretum

The Morton Arboretum has finally unveiled its massive new arbor-inspired exhibition at the end of May after it was forced to postpone its original April opening date due to pandemic-related shipping delays holding up the arrival of exhibition materials. Entitled Human + Nature, the arbor-inspired exhibition features five 20-25-foot art installations from the internationally renowned South African artist, Daniel Popper.

The massive natural sculptures will tower over various locations across the 1,700-acre tree museum and research center for at least one year, leading guests to areas they may not have explored before.

You can read more about it here.

Where: Morton Arboretum
Dates: May 28, 2021 – To be confirmed (one year minimum)
Website/Tickets: mortonarb.org/humannature

6. Mandela: Struggle For Freedom

Image courtesy of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center

From an exhibition highlighting our connection with nature to an exhibition that explores another contemporary issue – civil rights. Mandela: Struggle for Freedom illustrates the life of the eponymous human rights champion; paying homage to his legacy and unbreakable will, but also explores themes such as “the role of nonviolent protest, the power of youth, and the indignities of incarceration that still resonate today.”

Among its many dramatic features, the immersive exhibition has a replica of the eight-foot by seven-foot cell where the Nobel Peace Prize winner spent 18 years of his life. Stepping within, the enclosing walls illuminate around you showing projections that evince the dehumanizing conditions of Robben Islands and tell tales of repression and resilience.

In one room of the exhibition, an enormous tank-like truck emerges from one wall moving towards the onlookers. Visitors who dare can grab a trashcan lid as their only protection and get a feel of what it was like to be a student during the Soweto uprising. “Schwe-schwe” fabrics and rhythmic toyi-toyi dancing make it a culturally enriching experience as well as immersive and interactive.

You can read more about it here.

Where:  Illinois Holocaust Museum
Dates: February 20, 2021 – September 12, 2021
Website/Tickets: ilholocaustmuseum.org/mandela

7. Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Chicago

Image courtesy of Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Chicago

The Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Chicago is the first of its kind in the U.S. fusing high-tech installations and state-of-the-art soundscape with the Dutch painter’s revolutionary masterpieces. The 35-foot walls of the Victorian landmark’s Lighthouse ArtSpace Chicago are now adorned with flawless digital projections that offer an art experience like no other.

Surrounded by famous works like IrisesThe Bedroom in Arles, and Starry Night, guests can take an hour-long journey through the kaleidoscopic displays and submerge themselves in the elegance of Van Gogh’s creativity whilst unraveling his tormented mind.

Designed and conceived by Massimiliano Siccardi and Luca Longobardi, who pioneered the exhibition’s Parisian precursor, guests are invited to “step inside” Van Gogh’s iconic creations. Rather than playing the passive spectator a walk through the memories of the eccentric genius offers the chance to be galvanized by the passion behind every laden brushstroke.

With this innovative exhibition comes an exclusive opportunity to encounter one of the most famous painters to have ever lived via a visual, scholarly, and emotional journey through his world.

You can read more about it here.

Where: Lighthouse ArtSpace Chicago
Dates: February 11, 2021 – September 6, 2021
Website/Tickets: vangoghchicago.com

8. Claude Monet: The Immersive Experience

While After successful exhibits in London, Barcelona, and a number of other cities around the world, the time has finally come for the spectacular Claude Monet: The Immersive Experienceto make its way to the states. The multisensory journey through these famous bodies of work is an entirely new way of experiencing art, bringing every stunning detail to life like never before.

Using technology to recreate animated displays of these masterpieces you’ll be immersed directly into the paintings themselves, making you feel as if you’ve stepped into one of his works, like his most famous paintings, “Water Lilies” or “Springtime.” These incredible images will be taking over a secret location in Chicago with a specific venue and dates for 2021 to be announced soon.

You can read more about it here.

Where: TBC
Dates: TBC
Website/Waitlist: feverup.com/m/98166

9. Bisa Butler: Portraits

Another exhibition to have been postponed and extended is the stunning Bisa Butler: Portraits exhibition. On show through September 6, Bisa Butler’s portraits vividly capture personal and historical narratives of Black life evincing an expansive view of history through their engagement with themes such as family, community, and migration. A colorful exhibition devoted to the textile artist’s portrait quilts, it depicts Black subjects that have historically been marginalized. Bisa Butler: Portraits is the first solo museum exhibition of Butler’s work and includes over 20 of the artist’s remarkable portraits.

Where: Art Institute Of Chicago
Dates: February 11, 2021 – September 6, 2021
Website/Tickets: www.artic.edu /bisa-butler-portraits

10. The Willis Tower Skydeck Interactive Museum

Image from Instagram / @mmeyers76

Though not strictly a temporary exhibition, Willis Tower’s famed Skydeck has long been an essential Chicago bucket list experience for visiting tourists and seasoned locals alike. After undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation the iconic experience reopened in April boasting even more reason to head up to the Skydeck whether you’ve been before or not.

The 45,000-square-foot space is now, according to the Skydeck general manager Randy Stancik, “part Chicago museum, part selfie museum, part architectural river tour, and part children’s museum.” The experience combines lighting, sound, and visuals effects to offer a journey through Chicago’s history. Guests will find information about the city’s formative years and key events in the “Origins” section before entering the “Architecture” section, the “Taste of Chicago” section, and more. There is even a life-size “L” train car that takes visitors on a simulated journey through Chicago, and then, of course, the revamped observation deck itself.

Where: Floor 103 of the Willis Tower
Dates: N/A
Website/Tickets: theskydeck.com

See more: 10 Essential Chicago Bucket List Experiences For 2021

[Featured image from Morton Arboretum]