Curious about what happens behind the gallery walls at Chicago’s great art institutions? For one thing, shopping. Every year, museums spend millions of dollars acquiring works for their permanent collections. (Prices are kept private.) “A museum’s collection is like a manuscript that is constantly being edited and rewritten,” says James Rondeau, director of the Art Institute of Chicago. The details behind 2016’s most significant acquisitions:

Qing dynasty enameled porcelain altar set
Photo: Art Institute of Chicago

1 Qing dynasty enameled porcelain altar set

Art Institute of Chicago

Commissioned by Qing Emperor Jiaqing circa 1800, it is among the “most refined examples of Chinese ceramics,” says Rondeau.


'Nation Time'
Photo: Smart Museum of Art/The University of Chicago

2 Nation Time by Barbara Jones-Hogu

Smart Museum of Art

A founder of AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), Jones-Hogu dreams of unifying Chicago gangs under an imagined all-black nation in this 1969 print. “It’s about taking pride in African heritage,” says curator Jessica Moss.


'Sungazing Scroll'
Photo: Kei Ito

3 Sungazing Scroll by Kei Ito

Museum of Contemporary Photography

“I can’t think of any piece quite like it in the collection,” says curator Karen Irvine of the photographer’s homage to his grandfather’s witnessing of the bombing of Hiroshima. Made of light-sensitive paper, the scroll represents the brightness of the explosion and its insidious effects. “It is abstract but also specific to war from a Japanese viewpoint.”


'Group 4 (Convertible Series)'
Photo: Nathan Keay, MCA Chicago

4 Group 4 (Convertible Series) by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The 93-year-old Iranian artist is “only now getting her due,” says curator Omar Kholeif, who pushed the MCA to procure the mirrored mosaic. “We felt it urgent that we bring her into the museum’s fold.”


'Frida Seated with Globe, Puente de Alvarado Studio'
Photo: Puente de Alvarado Studio/National Museum of Mexican Art

5 Frida Seated with Globe, Puente de Alvarado Studio by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

National Museum of Mexican Art

Nabbing this 1937 portrait of Frida Kahlo was a coup, both because it is an iconic image by a pioneering Mexican photographer and because it captures Kahlo shortly before she became an international art star.