By Natasha Mikitas

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate (2004, Stainless Steel) Photo credit: Natasha Mikitas.

A giant concrete skyline juts aggressively hundreds of meters into the sky; the overwhelming size of the buildings makes it hard to feel anything but inferior.  Opposite these massive structures are the icy waters of Lake Michigan, startlingly blue and unwelcomingly frozen over. Hundreds of people are congregated between the concrete monsters and the icy waters, but their attention is focused on neither. They walk slowly around a lone structure, touching its smooth surface and laughing as they walk below it, staring up entranced at their own reflections. They are impressed by the enormity and engrossed in the almost perfect mirror images on its surface. This is Cloud Gate (2004, Stainless steel), and it is (in my experience) the best thing I have ever seen in a public park.

Cloud Gate is the 110-tonne creation of artist Anish Kapoor. It is affectionately known as The Bean (it’s resemblance to a kidney bean is uncanny). Cloud Gate is only one of the many impressive, stop-you-in-your-tracks,works of art in Chicago’s Millennium Park. The highly reflective surface presents a unique view of Chicago’s already beautiful skyline, not to mention entertaining self-photo opportunities (the inside reflections are almost akin to a funhouse mirror).

Millennium Park began as an initiative by Mayor Richard M. Daley. The objective was to grass over a sunken rail yard by creating a pleasant (if uninspiring) public park, as well as surface parking which would help pay for the project. The Chicago architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill were entrusted with the design for the park in 1998 and produced a plan akin to that of nearby Grant Park – a traditional Beaux Arts layout that would quietly complement the skyline of Michigan Avenue, slated to open by 2000. However, Project director Edward Uhlir had bigger (and better) ideas. He urged the city to consider more innovative proposals, ideas which echoed Chicago’s grand history while ultimately propelling the city landscape into the new millennium. The new venture would be risky – the site double from its original proposed 12 acres, the opening was pushed back four years and the initial budget of $150 million was increased by $325 million. The changes caused controversy throughout Chicago as furious residents claimed that such extravagant government spending was a misappropriation of tax funds. However, thanks to the tireless efforts of business man and dedicated arts patron John H. Bryan, $205 million of the overrun was picked up by private donors.

Bryan and Uhlir, together with private donors and corporations, worked to import renowned and talented artists to design contemporary art and architecture for the newly proposed millennial theme. The coup de grace came with the involvement of legendary architect Frank Gehry who was commissioned to design the music pavilion. The wealthy Pritzker family footed the bill for the enormous structure (thusly named the Jay Pritzker Pavilion) which had a two-birds-one-stone effect; wealthy families followed by example and donated exorbitant sums toward the project, and the pavilion set the forward-looking tone of the park.

Internationally recognised artists, architects, designers and sculptors followed in Gehry’s stead, creating interactive and brilliant works for public display. Every park should have a fountain and Barcelona born artist Jaume Plensa did not disappoint. He created Crown Fountain; two 15meter slabs of steel framed glass block placed in a thin film of water. One thousand Chicagoans were taped close up and their faces merge from one to the next on LED screens, water streaming out of their lips every few minutes – much to the delight of children during the summer months. The park is also home to Thomas Beebe’s black box theatre for music and dance, Kathryn Gustafen’s secluded garden, a 16 000 square foot ice skating rink below the Bean which turns into outdoor dining during the summer, and Frank Gehry’s first ever footbridge – a snaking walkway above the freeway connecting Millennium Park to Grant Park and Navy Pier.

Jaume Plensa, Crown Fountain (2004, steel and glass blocks). Photo credit: Natasha Mikitas.

Despite its controversial beginnings, Millennium Park has been a huge success in more ways than one. When asked for recommendations and site seeing around the city, Millennium Park is always the first recommendation by Chicagoans and it is not difficult to see why.In the first six weeks alone, Chicago officials estimate more than a million people poured through the $475 million, 24.5-acre park.

The pavilion, which offers free concerts throughout the summer offers 4, 000 fixed seats and 95,000 square feet of lawn which accommodate a further 7, 000 people. The innovative acoustics ensure that no matter where you watch the show, there is no chance of missing out. The interactive nature of the park mirrors the values and ambitions of the information and technological age – tourists and resident’s mill about the parklands at a leisurely pace, the surrounding works of art providing for easy conversation and laughter.

The works on display communicate directly with the people – the highly polished stainless steel of Cloud Gate is a direct reflection whilst the Crown Fountain provides a more personal connection with the residents. Free concerts, shows and family days immerse the public with culture, gently encouraging park goers to visit the nearby theatre district as well as the Art Institute of Chicago (conveniently located next to the park).

Millennium Park has proven to be a space like no other in America – it is a meeting place, a family friendly outing, a relaxed space for residents and visitors and a tourist draw card. Architect and planner Richard Hitchcock says, “Overall the space is magnificent… people are distributed throughout. You don’t have to go out of your way to find it, it sucks you right in. The public votes with its feet.”[1] It is not only residents and tourists benefiting from the aesthetically pleasing and fun park – nearby businesses have seen an increase in profit since the opening in 2004. Bennigan’s, a nearby restaurant, doubled its sales in the first week and has been enjoying constant traffic of customers ever since[2]. Real estate development and condominium sales have also benefited from the park.  This part of Michigan Avenue has been home to some of the most significant early 20th Century buildings in Chicago – however its position to the south of the Magnificent Mile (one of the United State’s most expensive stretches of shopping) had left the area with vacancies and low end retail. Millennium Park’s opening boosted sales – high rise luxury units were sold within weeks and Mayor Daley himself bought a unit overlooking the park.[3]

Although Millennium Park is the biggest public art project in Chicago, it is certainly not the only one. In 1978, Chicago’s City Council approved the Percent for Art Ordinance. This stipulated that “1.33% of the cost of constructing or renovating municipal buildings and public spaces will be devoted to original artwork on the premises.”[4] At least half of the commissions were to be awarded to Chicago area artists, providing opportunities to the local arts community. At that time, Chicago was one of the first cities to legislate the incorporation of public art into its official building program. Today, there are more than 200 similar programs throughout the United States, due in large part to the success of the Chicago ordinance.

The public art program aimed to provide the citizens of Chicago with an improved public environment by enhancing the city buildings and spaces with quality works of art.  Each site-specific artwork is commissioned through a community-based process. Program staff partner with aldermen, City agencies, and the Chicago artists’ community to administer design competitions for the selection of artwork. A minimum of two meetings are hosted in the community to solicit suggestions for artists and types of artwork for consideration for each Percent for Art Ordinance project. An artists’ registry is open to all living, professional artists free of charge. There are currently six art projects underway throughout Chicago – four in libraries, one in a police station, and one in a seniors centre.

The overall success of Millennium Park has led to a number of U.S. cities and metropolitan areas developing their own major civic projects. Atlanta has been developing a 35km ‘emerald necklace’ that is greatly expanding the city’s supply of parkland while helping to meet the transportation needs of the heavily congested area. In Boston, 27 acres of parks and cultural facilities have been planned on top of the submerged $14 billion Big Dig. In Washington D.C. a three block linear park has been developed as part of the cities improvements to lower income and developing neighbourhoods – the park is to be the focal point for retail, housing and office development.

Smaller metropolitan areas such as Munster, Indiana have already seen the benefits of public art. As in Chicago, a public art project is a requirement of Munster’s tax abatement program. Any business receiving abatement must spend 1% of the value of the abatement on some form of public art. Gregg Hertzlieb, director and curator of the Brauer Art Museum at Valparaiso University, said that public art, especially larger pieces, can become synonymous with the community or neighbourhood where the works are situated. He cited the Picasso at Daley Plaza in Chicago as an example of an artwork people associate with the city.

With the help of the Percent for Art Ordinance and the Public Art Program Mayor Daley, dubbed Chicago’s ‘Johnny Appleseed’ has transformed the city landscape. Chicago’s skyline has always been striking, holding its own against the likes of New York and San Francisco, but Daley transformed the streets themselves.  Public art works intersperse the gigantic rising towers, creating a welcoming feeling that the city otherwise lacked. A 26 foot tall statue of Marilyn Monroe designed by Seward Johnson, Forever Marylin (2011, stainless steel and aluminium) delighted tourists and residents alike, a welcome (and surprising) sight in the Pioneer Court. The Chicago Loop Alliance’s light installation – fittingly called Lightscape (2012, LED lights)– was placed on State Street throughout January and February 2012. This one of a kind light and sound installation created vibrant patterns of colour, choreographed to music. Residents and tourists were encouraged to tweet and text in love song dedications which would be randomly played throughout the day, creating a joyful atmosphere on the cold streets, as well as spontaneous dancing.

Chicago’s public art programs and initiatives have provided cultural, social and economic value. Millennium Park has distinguished the city, setting a trend in innovative and interactive civic projects which benefit the larger community. The works have invigorated dull public spaces, created conversation between strangers and provided and invaluable sense of community pride. Freely accessible works of art have engaged social interaction and are a reflection of the place and time (in the case of Cloud Gate, this reflection is literal). Millennium Park was a product of the Percent for Art Ordinance, but it was a catalyst for regeneration, community culture and pride and a new way of looking and thinking about the meaning and importance of public art.


Refernces and Further Reading

Black, J. (2005). New Millennium Park is ambitious, expensive – and popular.Retrieved from dev.libraryo.com/Article.aspx?num=130726206

Dluzen, R. (2011) Chicago Public Art Program Announces New Projects. Retrieved from http://chicagoartmagazine.com/chicago-public-art-program-announces-new-projects/

Kamin, B. (2005). Jay Pritzker Pavilion: Chicago. Architectural Record, 193(1), 136-145.

Schulze, F. (2004) Sunday Afternoon in the Cyber Age Park. Franz Schulze. Art in America.66–69.

Webb, M. (2004) View from Chicago. The Architectural Reviews, 216(293), 38.

Wieland, P. (2011). Public art can give a community identity. Retrieved from http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/


[1] Black, J. (2005). New Millennium Park is ambitious, expensive – and popular.Retrieved from dev.libraryo.com/Article.aspx?num=130726206

[2] Ibid.

[3] Black, J. (2005). New Millennium Park is ambitious, expensive – and popular.Retrieved from dev.libraryo.com/Article.aspx?num=130726206

[4] Dluzen, R. (2011) Chicago Public Art Program Announces New Projects. Retrieved from http://chicagoartmagazine.com/chicago-public-art-program-announces-new-projects/