Chicago Public Art: Understanding Funding and Ownership of Chicago’s collection of Public Art

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Above Image: Flamingo – by Alexander Calder
Commissioned by General Services Administration [GSA] Art in Architecture [AIA] program


“The psychologists and efficiency experts now find that beauty increases productivity. It necessarily follows that true functionalism in man-made edifices must include artistic expression. Sterility and her handmaiden, monotony, must be banished.” Those are the words of  Michael von Moschzisker, founder of Percentage-for-Art Program [which started in Philadelphia in 1959]. Those wonderfully spoken words provide a concrete argument in favor of investment in public art. It counters the oft heard argument against expenditure on art as non-functional and therefore non essential. Beauty increases productivity!  That’s a very good reason to invest in public art.


I am using the term “Public Art” very loosely here, and refer to art in public places that are open to everyone to see and enjoy. Chicago has a huge collection of world class public art, earning the reputation of being a “museum without walls”.  We have artworks by internationally famous artists – Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Jean Dubuffet, Sol Lewitt, Henry Moore, Claes Oldenburg –  installed at public places.  There are also works by famous Chicago artists – Lorado Taft, Roger Brown, Richard Hunt, Virginio Ferrari, Hector Duarte – and some Chicago artists who have left the city, like John Henry and Jerry Peart.

Although Public Art is free for all to see and enjoy, but there is usually a huge price tag attached to these.

So who is paying for, or commissioning these public artworks in Chicago?

This post is not about the artists behind public art, but about the various institutions that commission art at public places. There is a lot of confusion about this, because there is a whole lot of institutions involved – public, private and public-private partnership – and there is no single agency that overlooks the entire collection of Public Art in the city.




Some Major Participants in Commissioning Art in Public Places in Chicago.

These institutions maybe public, private or involve public-private partnership.
They may operate at the municipal level, state level or federal level.

City of Chicago:
The Visual Art department under Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events [DCASE] oversees the Chicago Public Art program, which manages the Public Art Program and the Exhibition Program. The Public Art Program can further be divided into Percentage-for-Art Program, and Special Projects.  Additionally, Chicago Park District [CPD], Chicago Public School, Chicago Transit Authority [CTA] and the Department of Aviation – all commission public artworks. They work independently, although they frequently consult with each other.

State of Illinois:
The Illinois Capital Development Board [CDB] manages the Art-in-Architecture [AIA] program.

Federal Government:
At the federal level General Services Administration [GSA] commissions artwork under the Art-in-Architecture [AIA] program.


Some Public Art are funded by private institutions:
Some prominent participants are: Millennium Park Inc. [presents rotating exhibitions at Boeing Galleries in Millennium Park], the Chicago Loop Alliance [art in the Loop], The Greater North Michigan Avenue Association Art [art in Magnificent Mile], Zeller Realty Group & Exhibits [art at Pioneer Court], Museum of Contemporary Art [MCA presents Chicago Plaza Project], and other organizations like Chicago Sculpture Exhibit [earlier Lakeshore Sculpture Exhibit, with artwork mostly in Chicago north area] and Chicago Sculpture International [or CSI with sculpture exhibits all over the city]. Then there is also B.F. Fergusson Monument Fund, which has commissioned some very prominent public artworks in Chicago.
NOTE: Most of these private institutions actively collaborate with public institutions, especially when the artwork is installed on public property!


Some Public Art are funded by public-private partnerships:
Chicago Gateway Green, which through its International Sculpture Program, has commissioned sculptures along Chicago’s gateways and expressways. The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority commissions artwork at Navy Pier and McCormick Place, partnering with City of Chicago Public Art Program and Chicago Department of Transportation [CDOT].


More Public-Private partnerships:

Various universities have their own collection of public art works. Some of them – like the University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Northwestern University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Oakton Community College – have a very rich collection of public art in their campus and buildings. In case of at Governors State University, the entire campus is a sculpture park, named Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park.

 Then there are sculpture parks – Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park and Chicago Athenaeum’s International Sculpture Park. These are separate from the sculptures maintained by Chicago Park District in various parks like Grant Park, Burnham Park, Lincoln Park, Humboldt Park and others.

 Another very active group is Chicago Public Art Group [CPAG] which unites artists and communities to produce public art work mostly in Chicago viaducts and underpasses.

All these various institutions actively participate in commissioning art in public places in Chicago!



The photo gallery below shows how public art in Chicago
is funded by different institutions: public, private and public-private partnership.






Public Funding of Public Art in Chicago



I am elaborating on the public funding of public art.
This includes funding of public art at all three levels: municipality, state and federal levels.


City of Chicago Public Art program

When it comes to Public Art, arguably the important institution in the city of Chicago, is the Visual Art Department of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events [DCASE]. The Visual Art Department oversees two types of programs: the Public Art Program, and the Exhibition Program. The Public Art Program can further be divided into Percentage-for-Art Program, and Special Projects.

Bulk of the city’s collection of public art comes from the Percentage-for-Art Program. In 1978, the City Council of Chicago passed the Percent-for-Art Ordinance. It mandates that 1% [ increased to 1.33 %   since 1987] of the construction or major renovation budget of a city-owned or city-financed building or structure or certain outdoor improvements is to used to acquire or install permanent artwork at that site.  At least half of the works must be created by Chicago-area artists.

Later that year the Chicago Public Art Program was established to implement the city’s Percent-for-Art Ordinance. Also an account was created to be used solely for the commissioning or purchase of artwork(s), administration of the Public Art Program, and maintenance of artwork in the Public Art Program. This account was called the “Public Art Program fund.” No more than 20 percent of the Public Art Program fund allocation for an artwork shall be applied to maintenance of that artwork and general administrative costs of the Public Art Program. Any funds that have been or may be allocated for an artwork, and that remain unspent after completion of the artwork, shall be preserved in a special account within the Public Art Program fund for the maintenance and preservation of artworks installed as part of the program.

Nine years later, in 1987, 49th Ward alderman David Orr introduced amendments to the ordinance. The percentage to be set-aside was raised from 1 percent to 1.33 percent of construction costs,  or renovation projects “affecting 50 percent or more of the square footage of a public building.” Also, advisory panels needed to be created to include community residents for projects in excess of $5,000.

Since the ordinance’s inception, more than 300 artworks have been permanently installed in parks,  libraries, community centers, fire stations, police stations, and other public venues throughout the city.

Public Art under city of Chicago Percent for Art program:
Knowledge and Wonder [1995] by Kerry James Marshall at Legler Branch Library,
Space Jungle [1996] by Dzine at Humboldt Park library,
Snake Charmer [1990] by Roger Brown at Harold Washington Library Center.

Public Art Program: Special here..


Federal level: General Services Administration [GSA] Art in Architecture Program 

In 1963,  during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the federal agency’s General Services Administration or GSA [overseer of federal construction projects], established the Art-in-Architecture Program.   In the GSA Art-in-Architecture [AIA] program, 1/2 of 1% [ 0.5% ] of a federal building’s costs are to be allocated for public art. The GSA is based in Washington DC and oversees public art projects in all 50 states. The General Services Administration [GSA] is an independent agency of the United States government, established in 1949 to help manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies. Since inception, the GSA program has commissioned many artworks from significant American artists including Ellsworth Kelly, Alice Aycock, Martin Puryear, Maya Lin, Jim Campbell, Jenny Holzer, James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Pae White, Leo Villareal, Spencer Finch, Tony Feher and Do Ho Suh, among others. In Chicago some public art commissioned by GSA include..

Public Art under  US General Services Administration [GSA] Art-in-Architecture [AIA] Program:
The Flamingo – by Alexander Calder [1974].. click here..
Art “Chicago Murals” – by Ilya Bootowsky [1976]..
Batcolum – by Claes Oldenburg [1977].. click here..
The Town-Ho’s Story by Frank Stella [1993].. click here..
Mural painting “Night before Last/ Chicago” – by Arturo Hrrera [2006].


State level:  Illinois Capital Development Board [CDB] Art in Architecture [AIA] Program 

The GSA’s AIA program soon became model for many states. In 1967, Hawaii became the first state to adopt this policy [under the name Art in Public Places]. It was followed by other states like Maine in 1973, Alaska in 1975, Washington in 1974 and Colorado 1977. The State of Illinois adopted Art-in-Architecture Program in 1977, which is administered by the Illinois Capital Development Board.

Public Art under Illinois Capital Development Board [CDB] Art-in-Architecture [AIA] program:
Freeform – by Richard Hunt [1993].. click here..
Monument With Standing Beast – by Jean Dubuffet [1984].. click here..
Symbiotic Parralax – by Terrence Karpowicz [1997].. click here..


National Endowment for Art [NEA] Art in Public Places program.

Another important Public program began in 1967 – the Art-in-Public-Places [AIPP] program under National Endowment for Art. Unlike the GSA’s AIA, the Endowment didn’t use the APP program to commission art. It merely offered grants to artists and arts organizations to create works of their own design, without giving specific guidelines for the art’s creation as a commissioning agency would have. Many of the APP’s early public artworks were abstract sculpture. The program’s first project was Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse, installed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1969.

Public Art under National Endowment for Art [NEA]  Art-in-Public Places [AIPP] program:

Lines in Four Directions – by Sol LeWitt [1985].. click here..


Public-Private Collaboration

Chicago Gateway Green: International Sculpture Program.. click here..
King Drive Gateway Project.. click here..


Private Funding

Some Public Art are funded by private institutions – foundations, corporations and private individuals – although they often partner with some public institution, like Chicago Public Art Program or Chicago Park District. One of the most important private institutions has been the B.F. Ferguson Monument Fund. It was created when Benjamin Franklin Ferguson, who when died in 1905, through his will left $1 million for the creation of a charitable trust fund to the Art Institute of Chicago. The fund was to be used exclusively for the erection and maintenance of enduring statuary and monuments, commemorating worthy men or women of America or important events of American history. Large scale artworks funded by the Ferguson Fund can be seen all over the city.. click here.. Another important name is of Judge Lambert Tree, who also credited for the Tree Studio Building and Annexes which was the first artist colony established in Chicago, way back in the 1890s. Some other philanthropists who have contributed immensely to the public art collection of Chicago are Kate Sturges Buckingham, Eli Bates, John Crerar, Pritzker family, Crown family and the Zell family.

All these various institutions, over the years, have commissioned very many enviable art pieces all over the city.

Posted by Jyoti Srivastava



“Nice Works if You Can Find Them” – by Jeff Heubner.. click here..
“Michael Von Moschzisker, 77, Creator Of 1% Art Program” – by Andy Wallace.. click here..
A History of Public Art – by Cynthia Deng.. click here..
National Assembly of States Arts Agencies.. click here..
Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism – by Cher Krause Knight.. click here..



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