Art Outdoors is a series that explores the ways art can thrive beyond gallery walls—whether with murals, plaza projects, or other outdoor forms of creative expression.
Last week we started off the MCA’s Art Outdoors series with a post about the Oldenburg murals from the late 1960s and early 1970s. In looking back at the MCA’s history of bringing art beyond the walls of the museum, the series serves as a reminder to look around our neighborhood as we take our daily walks. Chicago is a city where public art thrives, be it in the form of chalk and window drawings by neighborhood kids or large-scale public art projects with interorganizational collaboration. You never know what you might find.
This week, on the occasion of beloved artist Keith Haring’s (American, 1958–1990) birthday, we are looking back to another mural, this one from two decades later in 1989. Haring visited Chicago to work with several hundred Chicago Public School teens on a mural spanning roughly 500 feet—about one-and-a-half football fields. The mural was painted over the course of 5 days, with Haring painting the outline of his signature dancing figures and inviting the students to fill in the figures with their own drawings and text.
The MCA collaborated with the Chicago Public Schools Bureau of Art to develop the project, and the response from public and city officials was overwhelmingly positive. Mayor Richard M. Daley even officially declared the week of May 15–19, 1989, Keith Haring Week. The structure for the mural was constructed in Grant Park, where Haring and the teens spent the week painting it. It was moved temporarily to a construction site near downtown before being broken up into individual panels and placed in public schools around the city. 36 of the 122 panels were on display at Midway Airport for a number of years. In 2018, the Chicago Cultural Center held an exhibition showcasing these 36 panels, which were then redistributed to public schools around the city.
A WTTW special from 1989 that follows the artist Keith Haring as he paints a 488-foot mural with schoolchildren from Chicago Public Schools in Grant Park.
In my role as Librarian and Archivist at the MCA, I’ve seen lots of examples of collaborative projects like this in our institutional archive, but rarely on this scale. The coordination of the MCA, CPS, several hundred students, and Haring himself to pull off such a massive public art collaboration is, to me, perhaps the most striking thing about this story. The MCA archives has a copy of a video produced by WTTW from this time where we see the impact this week had on the students and even the general public who stopped by to watch the mural being painted. In a time of social distancing, seeing everyone come together to make this happen or just watch from the sidelines, invokes a sense of togetherness that I think we all are craving right now.
But second to that, what strikes me is the mural’s physical journey around the city. From a public park, to a construction site, Chicago public schools, Midway Airport, the Chicago Cultural Center, and then back to CPS; this mural made its rounds. This monumental effort to make this project accessible to the public shows how collaborative art projects beyond museum or gallery walls can have profound, enduring influence.
A lot has been written about this mural already. What follows below is a 2014 MCA blog post that recounts the process of finding documentation of the mural’s painting in the MCA’s photo archive. Be sure to check out the companion posts to this piece (here and here) for a more complete picture of the MCA archival holdings surrounding this project, as well as its far-reaching impact.