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Chicago's art institute expansion makes it nation's 2nd largest museum

Chicago's art institute expansion makes it nation's 2nd largest museum

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CHICAGO - Light, bright and definitely pricey - the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago is a triumph for architect Renzo Piano.

In a single stroke, the 264,000-square-foot wing turns Chicago's art museum into the nation's second-largest and opens up the previously windowless fortress of culture to the sky and the city. And, luckily, the wing was funded during the bull market of the 1990s.

Its $300 million price tag, plus $110 million for related improvements and upkeep, would be almost unthinkable in today's economy.

"This is the largest expansion and addition in the Art Institute's history," said museum president and director James Cuno, who noted that many of the works installed in the new galleries had been cleaned and reframed so visitors can see them in a fresh context.

The third-floor houses the core of the museum's modern collection - European works from 1900 to 1950. Increasing the gallery space for those artists allows their works to be displayed chronologically, an approach loved by Cuno, who (in his favorite word) aspires to give the museum "encyclopedic" scope.

The galleries begin and end with works by Pablo Picasso, and show most of the stylistic twists and turns he took in his long career. They also demonstrate the steady march toward increasing abstraction by such artists as Piet Mondrian and Constantin Brancusi.

Only indirect light from the north is admitted, and the floor plan of the galleries is carefully laid out. The rooms closest to the windows contain light-resistant sculpture and ceramic works, while rooms of paintings are situated away from the windows. And one special interior gallery, without skylights, uses only dim artificial lights to display the most fragile of works; those on paper and multimedia assemblages such as the intricate boxes of Joseph Cornell.

The second floor is devoted to art from 1950 to the present - both European and American.

Without skylights, those galleries are more reliant on artificial light, but certain rooms facing north windows use ambient light from outside.

The windows themselves are likely to be a major draw, since they look out into Millennium Park and its Frank Gehry-designed music pavilion, plus a wall of skyscrapers.

A cantilevered bridge across Monroe Street connects the third floor with Millennium Park.

The first floor of the new wing houses a grand entrance, new photography and temporary exhibition galleries, an educational center, offices, a high-end restaurant, and a gift shop.

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