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The Last Gasp for a Chicago Art Museum

The Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery has a last hurrah before closing in September.

Ed Paschke, Chicaucus, 1983.   Photo: Courtesy of the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery.

There’s one last chance to view an impressive public art collection before it gets locked away for, well, nobody knows how long. The Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery, the only museum in Chicago dedicated solely to the work of Illinois contemporary artists, may be closing this fall if Governor Rauner has his way. The governor’s proposed budget hopes to close the $4 billion gap in the state’s 2016 budget, and the state museum’s $6.29 million operating budget is one of the cuts, according to the Chicago Reader.

Sad news for art fans, of course, but the museum’s curator, Doug Stapleton, saw an opportunity to fill the empty galleries, located on the second floor of the Thompson Center, with a farewell show of some 30 masterpieces.

“The pieces in the collection are knockouts,” says Stapleton, who assembled the paintings, photographs, and prints from offices and conference rooms in the sprawling government complex that are otherwise difficult to access. Major works by Ed Paschke, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Miyoko Ito and others will be stashed away after the exhibit closes in late September.

Although Chicago is home to a strong tradition of image-making, typically referred to as the Imagists, there is no local museum dedicated to this homegrown genre. The Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery is the closest thing the city has to a regionally specific museum that tells the story of Chicago’s artistic heritage.

“I can’t imagine a government collection being put together on this scale today,” says Stapleton, who has cared for the 150 works in the building for the past 15 years. The collection was amassed from 1979 to 1985, when state and federal funding for art was a priority, and money was reserved to furnish the postmodern Thompson Center with contemporary artwork. That also happened to be a time when the Imagists were in peak form, producing some of the best work of their careers. The exhibit “is a great little time capsule” of that art historical moment, says Stapleton.

While several of these legacy artists are finally having a breakout moment in New York City’s art scene, from Karl Wirsum to Barbara Rossi, come the end of September, Chicagoans will have one less spot to experience the city’s art. Stapleton says the art collection will remain safely held by the state until the budget crisis is solved.

30/30: Selections from the Permanent Collection of the James. R. Thompson Center shows through September 25 at the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery, 100 W Randolph. museum.state.il.us.

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