Chicago’s Top 40 Artistic Breakthroughs

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Chicago’s great artistic breakthroughs

To celebrate our magazine’s 40th anniversary this December, we name the 40 best records, restaurants, movies, and more

20. February 1967 The WFMT radio host and professional conversationalist Studs Terkel goes into neighborhoods with his tape recorder and interviews 71 everyday Chicagoans—“people who make the world go around”—for Division Street: America. The book, a bestseller, helps establish oral history as a literary form. For more from Terkel, watch his interview with Charlie Rose below:

19. August 1967 Bribed by souvenirs, such as a White Sox uniform and an Indian war bonnet, and courted in repeated visits from the Chicago architect William Hartmann, the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso finally agrees to design his first large-scale civic sculpture. When the five-story steel monument is unveiled in Civic Center Plaza in August 1967, the public is perplexed—Is it a bird? A woman walking a dog?—but ultimately won over with news that the 85-year-old artist has handed back his check and donated his work to the people of Chicago.

18. January 2007 Two years after August Wilson’s death, the Goodman Theater stages Radio Golf, the coda in Wilson’s effort to dramatize the African American experience. A champion of new plays, the Goodman earns the distinction of being the first theatre in the country to produce all ten plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. The Kenny Leon–directed production travels largely intact to Broadway, where it garners four Tony nominations.

17. 1917 Rebelling against the American inclination for formal gardens, the Danish landscape architect Jens Jensen proposes what will be his greatest achievement: the 144-acre Columbus Park on the western edge of Chicago. With the eye of an artist, he fashions meadows and groves out of native flowers, shrubs, and trees. An early conservationist, Jensen helps shape many of Chicago’s major public places, and his efforts change the style of American landscape architecture.

16. October 1912 At 51, the Chicago poet Harriet Monroe founds the magazine Poetry to rescue what she calls the “Cinderella of the arts.” In her inaugural issue, she dubs the London-based poet Ezra Pound her first foreign correspondent. Though not rich, Monroe solicits 100 wealthy Chicagoans to each pledge $50 a year for five years, and the magazine becomes the headquarters and spiritual home of modern poetry.

15. April 1919 A decade before the works land in an American museum, the Chicago Arts Club curators Rue Carpenter and Alice Roullier mount an exhibition of French post­impressionists that includes Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Dufy, Signac, Derain, Seurat, and “Paul” Picasso, as he was named in the catalog. This is the second American showing of Seurat’s revolutionary “divisionist” work Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. (The Art Institute won’t acquire it until 1926.) The show establishes Chicago’s reputation as a supporter of provocative new art.

14. June 1974 Stuart Gordon, the founder of the Organic Theater and an early nurturer of Chicago playwrights, works with the young local actor-writer David Mamet to fashion a series of sketches into the full-length theatre piece, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The language is foul, but Mamet demonstrates a poet’s flair for stringing together street vernacular in a rhythmic way. After he volunteers to be Organic’s playwright-in-residence and Gordon turns him down, Mamet marches his next work, American Buffalo, to the Goodman, where it becomes a hit, launching him as one of the foremost American playwrights of the 20th century.

13. 1975 Saturday Night Live raids the improvisational comic warehouse The Second City for its inaugural cast—called the Not Ready for Prime Time Players—and nets rising stars John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Gilda Radner. The TV show’s immediate success establishes the Old Town institution as a major comedy factory, and Chicago-style sketch comedy reigns as a new format for TV. For more on how famous comedians got their start with Second City, watch the video below:

12. May 1885 The Chicago architect William LeBaron Jenney completes construction on the ten-story Home Insurance Building, considered by some the world’s first skyscraper, at Adams and LaSalle streets. Working with pressed brick and stone, Jenney promises a skittish public that the structure will be “strictly fireproof.” Demolished in 1931, the building is one of the earliest examples of iron-and-steel-frame technology.

11. Fall 1971 Under the direction of Sir Georg Solti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra embarks on a six-week tour of Europe and takes the continent by storm. In Milan, Solti is warned to expect a temperamental public, but instead of boos, the audiences cry “bis,” the Italian request for an encore. The tour rallies a local funding base of donors—both individuals and corporations—and cements the orchestra’s reputation as an international force.

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4 years ago
Posted by cph

I think this is a very good list, and very important.

But if I may remind you of ONE HUGE omission..

Smashing Pumpkins "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness".

A groundbreaking, 8x platinum selling, reminding the world that Chicago is a musical hotbed of amazing talent, homage to Chicago.
The biggest hit, 'Tonight Tonight" is literally sung about his "city by the lake".

The band employed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for that song.

I mean, come on.

4 years ago
Posted by johnnysbeef

No Louis Sullivan? Did I miss it?! I'll go back and look.

4 years ago
Posted by MargeC

Pretty good list but a MAJOR omission -- the founding of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago by Lou Conte in 1977. The company continues to present national and international dancers in Chicago and around the world -- to extraordinary acclaim. Hubbard Street is Chicago's own contemporary dance company and has spawned many outstanding choreographers, schools and companies here and abroad.

4 years ago
Posted by think_pictures

To list Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a very good and influential album no doubt, but not to make any mention anywhere of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is ridiculous and quite sad. Founded in 1967 and still active today, the AACM has fostered and produced some of the most creative and important musicians of the past 40 years. The influence of the organization and individual musicians and groups is truly international.

And, since I am bringing up the topic of musicians, I won't even mention what a shame it is you don't mention any of Sun Ra's work in Chicago. Do you even know who he was or accomplished??

To be honest, I don't think an album like Yankee Foxtrot Hotel would have been possible without the innovations and accomplishments of the AACM and Sun Ra. Their influence transcends styles or genres.

Please do some homework before putting up a list like this! :-)

4 years ago
Posted by allenchicago

Good list - 3 glaring omissions: Nelson Algren, Louis Sullivan, and me.

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