Chicago is home to a myriad of stunning public art experiences, where each complement their encompassing environment. In this spirit, the city’s largest work of public art, and the largest permanent digital art project in the world, Art on theMART, embraces its surroundings unlike any other installation in Chicago.
The now-beloved contemporary art project originated in September of 2018 as more than 30,000 fled to the Chicago Riverwalk to watch the historic Merchandise Mart building transform into a work of art. Following its launch, Art on theMart has hosted nightly projects created by countless artists, ranging from the current exhibitioner Nick Cave to the inaugural artist Jason Salavon.
Every evening, 34 projects – sprawled across the Riverwalk itself – help project multiple works of digital art across its 2.5-acre facade. TheMART takes advantage of the latest immersive art technology, using various mapping techniques to ensure every projection fits perfectly to the Art Deco details of theMart.
While all of the projections showcased at Art on theMART utilize the giant facade of theMart to showcase bright colors and complex imagery to catch the attention of viewers, the installations also comprise bespoke audio elements, creating an even more immersive experience.
Current exhibitions include explore by Jonas Denzel and Billiken by Shkynna Stewart and Wills Glasspiegel beginning at 9 p.m. and at 9:30, Ba Boom Boom Pa Pop Pop by Nick Cave, running concurrently with the Furthermore installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Only a 15-minute walk from Optima Signature, prime locations to witness the marvelous exhibition are found across the river from theMart on Chicago’s Riverwalk and West Wacker Drive.
As dated infrastructure (like the abandoned railroad yards in the downtown area) proliferated in the early decades of the 20th century, more and more land development opportunities opened up. In hopes of beautifying the frontage along the Chicago River, Marshall Field & Co. announced their purchase of one of the largest available sites, at the junction of the River’s branches. The company began construction in 1928 and when the Merchandise Mart opened in 1930, it achieved the company’s dream of becoming a dedicated wholesale center for architectural and interior design vendors and trades serving the entire nation. And, with 4 million square feet on 25 floors under a single roof spanning two city blocks, it became the largest building in the world.
TheMART was imagined as a city-within-a-city. Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the architects behind the structure’s streamlined look, took inspiration from traditional Art Deco architectural elements, including ribbon piers to define windows, setbacks and pavilions atop each corner to disguise the bulk of the building. Marshall Field himself was involved in the building’s design; his love for art inspired him to employ Jules Guerin to create 17 murals on the interior lobby’s frieze. Each mural details trade throughout the world and depicts the products, transportation and architecture of 14 countries.
TheMART was also a monumental experiment in state-of-the-art engineering and modern materials. At a cost of $26 million, it took advantage of construction techniques normally used in the building of big dams and employed nearly 5,700 workers at the height of the Great Depression.
theMART in the Modern Era
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, theMART faced a handful of modernization projects. One was designed by Helmut Jahn to connect the building with the Apparel Center located across Orleans Street with a pedestrian bridge. The building was LEED Certified Silver in 2007, followed by LEED Gold Certification in 2013 and in 2018.
In recent years, as the contract furniture industry has evolved from a focus on a wholesale hub and independent manufacturer showrooms, the Mart has repositioned itself as a destination for innovation, creativity, technology and entrepreneurship. Rebranded “theMART,” the building remains the world’s largest commercial building, and has become home to a host of changemakers, including Motorola Mobility, 1871, Yelp, PayPal and MATTER, as well as Fortune 500 companies Conagra, Allstate, Kellogg, Beam Suntory, and Grainger.
Today, theMART continues to celebrate an appreciation for architecture and art. The building now hosts a digital art display popularly known for “Art on theMART,” to showcase the work of prominent artists on the south façade of the structure.
With our love for all things “forever modern” at Optima, we are proud to have this magnificent example of design innovation and tireless reinvention in our midst.