5 of the best university museums and galleries in Chicago

by Paul Stafford  |  Published March 9, 2020

Chicago is blessed with a large collection of fine educational institutions. But the universities and colleges of the Windy City are not only enlightening young minds, their profusion of acclaimed art galleries and museums are a wonderful resource open to everybody.

DePaul Art Museum (Photo: Courtesy of DePaul University)

As the third-largest US city, you can expect beautiful public parks, skyscrapers, and world-beating sports teams in Chicago. Many of the USA’s finest museums can also be found in the city, including the museums of Science and Industry, and of Contemporary Art. There is even a region of Grant Park named Museum Campus, which is dedicated to hosting major museums, including Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum of Natural History. But it’s the museums on the real campuses that are turning heads lately.

Without doubt, Chicago is one of the major intellectual hubs of the US. Venerated higher-education establishments, including the universities of Chicago, Illinois, DePaul and Northwestern, all call the city home. If that kind of academic pedigree wasn’t enough, these institutions, along with many other colleges, have a proud track-record when it comes to running or hosting not-for-profit museums and art galleries. Thanks to generous grants from various benefactors, you can expect some top-quality exhibitions in these following five top Chicagoan university museums and galleries.

The Block Museum of Art

Block Museum exterior (Photo: Courtesy of The Block Museum)

One of The Block Museum’s guiding principles is to bring new art into the building regularly. Three of the museum’s galleries change exhibitions at least twice, and sometimes up to four times, a year. The objective, both of the work curated in-house and the traveling exhibitions welcomed in from elsewhere, is to challenge visitors’ perceptions of the wider world through engaging art from lesser appreciated areas of the world. As such, expect works from anywhere, in any medium and from any time. Starting life in 1980 as a series of temporary exhibits, The Block has gradually acquired a permanent collection too, thanks largely to Northwestern University’s donation of various pieces and the continued generosity of other patrons. The museum is housed in a neat, glass-fronted building that looks out onto Lake Michigan from the Northwestern University campus in Evanston.

Address: 40 Arts Circle Dr, Evanston

Hours: Tue, Sat & Sun 10am–5pm, Wed–Fri until 8pm

Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP)

MoCP Building Exterior (Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Photography)

Imagery from some of the greatest portraitists, photojournalists, and landscape photographers who ever lived is amassed in the MoCP’s extensive permanent collection. At the time of writing, over 15,500 works spanned the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Ansel Adams, as well as contemporaries behind the lens. Situated at the liberal arts-centered Columbia College Chicago, MoCP is an invaluable resource designed to integrate students with the wider creative community. It does this by fostering debate using thoughtful, temporary visual exhibitions that reflect the major problems and issues facing the modern world. Meanwhile the permanent collection is, in many ways, a historical documentation of a former world, elements of which are mirrored in today’s events. MoCP also occasionally hosts events linked to the exhibitions.

Address: Columbia College Chicago, 600 S Michigan Ave

Hours: Mon–Wed, Fri & Sat 10am–5pm, Thu until 8pm, Sun noon–5pm

Oriental Institute Museum

Tutankhamun at the OI (Photo: Michael Tropea, courtesy of the Oriental Institute)

Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019, the Oriental Institute (OI) Museum’s well-established collection of precious Middle Eastern artifacts is a real feather in the cap for the University of Chicago. Highlights among the treasures within include the impressive stone relief carvings from Persepolis in Persia, ivory carvings from Tel Meggido, an Ancient Egyptian statue of Tutankhamun, and a large Neo-Assyrian carving of a winged bull with a human head dating back to around the 8th century BC. Another notable sight are the tablets containing one of the planet’s earliest writing systems, cuneiform, which emerged in Mesopotamia. Initially founded with the help of donations from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the OI Museum is a magnet for lovers of all things anthropological and archaeological. Many of the many thousands of artifacts in the OI’s collection were excavated by OI archaeologists, with at least 5,000 on display to the public. Check online for the latest program of events and the museum’s excellent special exhibits.

Address: University of Chicago, 1155 E 58th St;

Hours: Tue & Thu–Sun 10am–5pm, Wed until 8pm

DePaul Art Museum

Inside DePaul Art Museum (Photo: Courtesy of DePaul University)

Championing under-represented artists is one of the key goals at DePaul Art Museum, which is why the Latinx Initiative was launched in 2020 and designed to last a number of years. Not only does the museum aim to curate exhibitions that examine under represented cultures in America, but they also help encourage participation and empowerment of people in those communities to express themselves through art. As with all museums on this list, student engagement is inbuilt into everything the museum does. The resulting art on show explores a fascinating array of facets to the human condition, with the hope of connecting people across communities and fostering debate in the process. The museum closes periodically while new exhibitions are installed, so check online for the latest information before visiting.

Address: DePaul University, 935 W Fullerton Ave

Hours: Wed & Thu 11am–7pm, Fri–Sun until 5pm

The Renaissance Society

Exhibition inside ‘The Ren’ (Photo: Courtesy of The Renaissance Society)

Affectionately known as ‘the Ren’, The Renaissance Society is an excellent contemporary art gallery based at the University of Chicago but operating independently. The main space is a white, blank canvas, with a lofty ceiling and angular features almost reminiscent of the eclectic architecture in Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, and indeed the kunsthalle approach to the gallery, whereby there is a close working relationship with artists and no permanent collection, is not out of sorts with this paradigm. Often putting the artist at the center of their plans, the Ren’s team not only curates group exhibitions but often strives to work directly with an international artist whose new work they wish to feature exclusively in their space. Check out the Ren also for concerts, screenings, talks and other events, as well as the books they publish to accompany most of the exhibitions. The museum closes periodically between exhibitions, please double-check in advance of visiting.

Address: 4th Floor of Cobb Hall, 5811 South Ellis Ave

Hours: Tue, Wed, Fri 10am–5pm, Thu until 8pm, Sat & Sun noon–5pm