The Art Institute of Chicago Galleries

With the introduction of the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, the narrative and flow of several of the existing galleries needed to be reconfigured. WHY was commissioned to relocate and redesign seven permanent galleries as part of the museum’s overall masterplan, creating a greater sense of clarity and cohesion.

Key info
Design Architect
Executed by WHY Architecture Workshop Inc.
Chicago, Il
  • 2008 - 2011
  • 43,390 sf
Design Architect, Planner, Gallery Designer

WHY’s gallery planning strategy was guided by a close attention to the history of the building and the mission of the institution. Consistent collaboration with museum staff, trustees, and multiple other stakeholders was crucial to understanding the context of the new galleries, developing a vision for the museum as it expands its programming and welcomes new audiences. The reconfiguration of the existing galleries took place in stages so as not to disrupt the visitor experience, a process enabled by WHY’s strategy of acupuncture architecture. Rather than imposing a dramatic “facelift,” acupuncture architecture allows for hyper-localized iterative interventions over a period of time; the relationship between different spaces is gradually healed from the inside out, reintroducing energy and flow to the structure as a whole.


The dark 1970’s interior shell of the structure has been completely renovated from the ground up, creating a bright and refreshing environment that complements and highlights the ancient artwork. The daylighting conditions in the gallery changes throughout the day allowing visitors to feel connected to the outdoors but also providing a constantly changing experience with the art. A series of modular custom casework highlights the art groupings within while the various island configurations of casework reflect the relationships and connections between the art objects.


The development of this gallery provided a unique opportunity for the institution to redefine how ancient art is both displayed and conserved. Display casework was designed to be as minimal and transparent as possible while at the same time being engineered to strict security and conservation standards. Interactive displays at key objects were incorporated into the casework and gallery design to provide visitors with further insight into ancient art and the conservation process.


The design and reinstallation of the Prints and Drawings Collection takes into consideration the proportion of the spaces and the qualities of light. By nature of works on paper, the exhibition will always be works on rotation, so the spaces and lighting system are designed as a simple, practical, and flexible solution allowing for variety of works and sizes. Lower spaces in gallery, dictated by existing structural conditions, are transformed into alcoves conducive for closer and intimate viewing where removable cases could be installed for manuscript or horizontal display for delicate works of art.


A modern day kunstkammer, intended for the enjoyment of everyone, is the originating image for this gallery. The galleries are designed as a simple and amenable environment so each art object could genuinely tell its story. The space design attempts to balance between an open grand space where visitors find easy orientation within the museums European collection and intimate spaces that welcome people to examine specific objects more closely.

African & Amerindian Art Galleries

Japanese Art Gallery

Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art

Folk Arts

Lighting Consultant
  • Lux Populi
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