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First Impressions: Then and Now

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On the occasion of the museum’s founding in October 1967, our founding president, Joseph Shapiro, stated that the museum “intends to present what is new, what is controversial, what is distasteful, and what is considered anti-art. Some people aren’t going to like these shows.” Some people didn’t like the building these shows were located in either. Below we feature some of our favorite reviews from 1967, 1996, and 2017: three years that mark major transformations of the MCA.


Chicago's first museum dedicated to the art of the now elicited many critics and advocates of the fledging MCA. Considered by some to be "Chicago's most important institutional development in at least a decade," others staunchly believed that the museum was unnecessary.

the ancient conclusion was voiced again and again that Chicago doesn’t want, and therefore probably doesn’t need a museum of contemporary art.

—Franz Schulze, Art in America

The unveiling of the Museum of Contemporary Art was, by any yardstick, a smash success

—Patricia Moore, Daily News


The museum . . . was incorporated in April of 1964 and a delegation went to see Daggett Harvey, chairman of the Mayor’s Cultural Committee, to get his support for their bid for the Court of Appeals Building.

>Harvey asked them: "How do you know the city needs a contemporary art museum?"

>He told them to find the answer to that question. . . . They duly sent out 1,000 letters to academicians, artists, businessmen, and civic leaders in Chicago and around the country, and received 800 endorsements in reply. The Cultural Committee in turn could offer nothing but moral support.

—Jack Altman, Midwest Magazine of The Chicago Sun-Times

Van der Marck’s ideas, and his bright new building on Ontario St., constitute Chicago’s most stimulating port-of-call for the art-minded.

—John K. Sherman, The Star


While the Museum was being hammered into shape, Van der Marck and his staff occupied temporary office quarters inside the building. They used the walls as a sort of bulletin board, and it was there that the following quotations were seen scrawled in colored chalk. They hardly constitute a deflnitive statement of policy, but they are revealing:

Everything is pretty.

—A. Warhol.

Life in the museum is like making love in a cemetery.

—A. Kaprow.

A fine art center is a tomb, not an amusement center.

—A. Reinhardt.

I would prefer to have my works in a Pleasure House.

—O. Fahlstrom.

—Dennis Stone, Art Scene, Nov 1967


The opening of the new MCA at 220 East Chicago Avenue, the museum's current location, drew hundreds of Chicagoans to Streeterville for a free, 24-hour preview of the new building. While attendees considered the event "history" and the museum "much better than a bar," there were many others who considered the new building a cold fortress of culture.


In conjunction with the museum's 50th anniversary, the building went through a major, $16 million redesign, transforming 12,000 square feet of "a cold, colorless culture palace" into welcoming space that is free to the public. So far, critics have been as excited about this new MCA as they were in 1967.


A graphic rendering of a three-story atrium with white walls and windows that shows people on each level.

Conceptual rendering of the MCA by Tom Hancocks.

Established in 1967 to offer a complement to the primarily older offerings at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has evolved from a tiny upstart to one of most influential such institutions in the country and, indeed, the world.

—Kyle MacMillan, Chicago Sun-Times

thanks to Johnston and Lee’s sure-handed redesign, visitors can follow a promenade that begins on Mies van der Rohe Way and ends in a garden with views toward Lake Michigan. What could be more rational or poetic?

—James Gauer, Architectural Record

[Johnston Marklee's] framework manages to be deeply respectful of the Kleihues design—a surprise, given that the building's bunkerlike exterior might have invited a wholesale makeover.

—Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune

Despite the conflicting views held by Chicagoans over the years, we still find Harold Rosenberg's 1967 New Yorker review of the MCA true: "It is probably safe to rely on the levity of the art world in regard to anti-art pronouncements; after all, people who have been against art have kept art going for more than fifty years."

Research for this post was compiled by Alexandria Dravillas, our fall 2017 marketing intern.