Ten Best Under-the-Radar Chicago Cultural Spots
Most culture seekers who come to Chicago make a beeline to the marquee destinations around the Museum Campus, as well they should. But what about the Intuit Center for Outsider Art in Noble Square? Or perhaps the Busy Beaver Button Museum? (Yup. It’s all buttons, all the time.) These are but a couple of the city’s lesser-known cultural gems, many of which, as an added bonus, are free.
Intuit Art Center
Located in a low-key storefront, the Intuit Art Center is the only organization in the United States dedicated to presenting self-taught and outsider art. The signature note here is the reconstructed apartment of Chicago artist Henry Darger, who worked on a complex epic tale called “In the Realms of the Unreal” that comprises 15,000-plus pages.
Busy Beaver Button Museum
Do you know the story of the button on your bag? Never fear, the folks at the Busy Beaver Button Museum can probably clue you in. Part factory, part museum, this engaging place offers up thousands of buttons (like, the pin kind, not the one that closes your shirt) covering political life, pop culture, and miscellany (think obscure Star Trek characters and “Howard Stern for President” slogans).
Leather Archives and Museum
Set in an unassuming commercial building, the Leather Archives and Museum celebrates and studies the world of leather, kink, and fetish lifestyles. Visitors can explore the dungeon (yes, that type of dungeon), learn about the history of leather bars, and learn about the history of women in leather culture.
Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago
As the oldest museum of contemporary art in Chicago, the Renaissance Society has hosted debut works by artists ranging from Alexander Calder to Bruce Nauman and Jenny Holzer. Exhibits change every month or so, and past offerings have included works of contemporary Italian printmakers, German expressionist graphic artists, and concerts inspired by the art on the walls.
Hyde Park Art Center
Chicago’s groundbreaking Imagist Movement got its start at the Hyde Park Arts Center and today it continues to present works by movers and shakers like Theaster Gates and Juan Angel Chavez. You can stop by and check out the artists in residence, grab a bite at their cafe, and also check out innovative works that celebrate graffiti by female artists.
Randolph Street Market Festival
For two days every month, the rather fashionable Randolph Street Market opens up its doors to offer eight acres of shopping and culture. Along with the troves of vintage clothing, objet d’art, and other baubles, there’s also a vinyl swap meet (bring out your Blue Note albums) and a global goods bazaar that features items from Mumbai to Morocco.
Pritzker Military Library
Conveniently located on Michigan Avenue, this military library is not your grandfather’s collection of dusty sabers and naval warfare tomes. A quick wander around the premises reveals exhibits on the history of women in the military, a moving tribute to Medal of Honor recipients, and more. And, oh yeah: they show military-themed movies on Saturday afternoons.
This skyscraper temple is a mighty fortress. Finished in 1924, the 23-story building is the tallest church in the world. Ride all the way to the top to tour the Sky Chapel, a sanctuary at the base of the building’s ornate steeple that offers a bit of compelling art history in the form of elaborate stained-glass windows and an altar-front featuring Jesus looking over the city of Chicago.
DePaul Art Museum
As one of the newest additions to the DePaul University campus in Lincoln Park, this free museum brings together photographic exhibits that explore urban landscapes, quilts by African-American artists, and screen prints by Andy Warhol. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon before setting off for one of the area’s notable bars or restaurants.
Richard Driehaus Museum
Built for Chicago banker Samuel Mayo Nickerson, the Driehaus Museum is a veritable repository of works by noted designers including Louis Tiffany and the Herter Brothers. Guests can take a tour to learn about these late-period Gilded Age designs and the architecture of this remarkable home. As a bonus, the home also includes rotating exhibits on anything from Art Deco jewelry to Gay ’90s fashions.