Behind the Canvas: A Visit to the Hidden Art Institute


As you walk past the courageous bronze lions that guard the entrance to one of the greatest art museums on the planet, you’re most likely thinking about the iconic artworks you’ll be seeing at the Art Institute of Chicago: Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,” or Wood’s “American Gothic.” You may even be thinking about the museums expansive modern and contemporary art collection, or which exhibit will be the best to explore first: the Thorne miniature rooms, or the folk art. However, it is unlikely that you’re thinking about how it all runs smoothly. Fortunately, one of our very own Wick staff was lucky enough to participate in a behind-the-scenes tour and now knows all about running an art museum–me.
On the 12th of March, I joined Sarah Guernsey, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs at the Art Institute. Her title is a very confusing and lengthy one, but just based upon what we toured that day, I learned that she basically does everything, and knows everyone, from the head of modern art to men who install new exhibits.
It was with the head of modern and contemporary art that we truly began the tour. We walked right through the modern wing of the museum to the room-sized elevator hidden from view. We descended into the museum’s largest storage area, which was almost exactly like a scene from Indiana Jones. Modern sculptures covered most of the floor, and all available wall space was covered with paintings. Dozens more were stored vertically on racks, and the head of modern art pulled them out to show them to us as a father proudly shows his kids. I could’ve stayed there for hours, looking at paintings from Lichtenstein and sculptures from various artists, but soon we were back on the industrial elevator and back to reality.
We then headed another storage site, for tens of thousands of sketches, which aren’t on display because the light is too harsh for their fragile nature. However, anyone can make an appointment to view these astounding sketches.
We stepped into the library, and Ms. Geurnsey introduced us to sketches that became Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” as well as lesser known works by Lichtenstein, in which he hones his style by replicating Monet’s Haystacks. The museum’s vast archives ensure that anyone will find sketches of her favorite artist.
Ms. Geurnsey then led us through the underbelly of the Art Institute to our final destination, the center of art restoration. Here work living oxymorons: artistic chemists.
Over time, the vibrancy which makes art beautiful fades, whether it be from cigarette smoke, light, or the degradation of varnish. Once the painting is brought to this remote area of the museum, it can be fixed back to its original glory.
Those with degrees in both chemistry and art must also have fine motor skills and loads of patience to be able to practice art restoration. We saw a woman working on a painting several times larger than herself with a cotton swab, painstakingly removing the scum that develops over the course of many years on display, and returning the painting to its intended perfection. These dedicated scientific artists treat art with the respect it deserves, so that future generations can enjoy it as much as those from hundreds of years before.
We ended the tour roaming the now-closed, completely empty museum, talking about anything from poorly-done art projects assigned for school, to an interactive contemporary art exhibit comprised of dozens of inflated fish-shaped linoleum balloons.
So next time you walk between the famous lions, up the stairs to the Art Museum that has been ranked higher than the Louvre, think instead about how the museum runs so smoothly, and consider such interesting jobs as restoring art or designing exhibits—consider a career in the love of art.