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American Gothic on the Eisenhower? ‘Art Everywhere’ project brings American artworks out of the museum and on the roads

Forget Wrigley gum or high-end vodka ads. By late this summer, Chicagoans could have Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” to gaze at while stuck in traffic or waiting for the bus.

The Art Institute of Chicago is teaming up with four other major museums for a project called “Art Everywhere,” or, as organizers are calling it, the largest outdoor art show ever conceived.

The project was originally founded in the U.K by Richard Reed, the founder of smoothie company Innocent Drinks. Artworks by British artists were splashed all over bus terminals and poster sights last August.

This year, the Art Institute, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City are working together with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America to kickstart the project in the United States. Each museum picked 20 pieces they felt would look best plastered on roadways across the country - including in Chicago. Funding for the project comes from a range of advertising companies.

Dallas Museum of Art President Maxwell Anderson said sitting down with his colleagues and deciding how to choose those 20 was “great fun.”

“It was Darwinian in its struggle, between what curators first suggested and what our marketing department said would look good on a billboard,” he said.

The final list is a variety of work that spans from 1767 to 2008 and includes paintings, photographs, decorative objects, and even multimedia work.

“There’s a real full range, you can tell the history of American painting when you look at these initial hundred,” said Douglas Druick, President and Director of the Art Institute.

Druick says he hopes the project will give people a new experience of art, and possibly bring some new viewers in to museums to see the real thing.

“Scale means a lot, and signifies a lot. I think some of these images will be unmissable the way images on your cell phone are not,” he said. “I mean you’re looking at something on your cell phone, you can move right past it. But it doesn’t literally arrest the viewer as a big billboard of a composition will.”

But the masterpieces that will adorn the country’s streets won’t just be chosen by art critics or museum donors -- anyone with internet access can vote to pick 50 of the 100 works of art displayed online. Those 50 will then be reproduced to fit on as many as 50,000 advertising displays nationwide by August.

Anderson said he’s likely exempt from the vote, but he’s already dreamed up which of the DMA’s masterpieces might look best on the highway.

“Frederic Edwin Church’s “The Icebergs” is one of his greatest majestic paintings of the 19th century, showing his encounter with these colossi. And it’s a massive painting which in our view would look pretty good on a massive billboard in the dead of summer.”

Lauren Chooljian is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @laurenchooljian

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