Art projections at Merchandise Mart likely to begin this fall

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An illustration of a projection on the Merchandise Mart. | Provided image

Any artist will be allowed to submit their work for possible projection onto the Merchandise Mart’s 2.6 acre “canvas” when Chicago’s latest public art project kicks off this fall, officials say.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel appeared Sunday along the Riverwalk to tout plans for projecting art on the south façade of the building, which faces the Chicago River.

The City Council will soon consider an ordinance to allow its owners to install state-of-the-art projectors and other technology on the Riverwalk between Franklin and Wells. Emanuel called the plan “the largest permanent installation in the United States of America.”

“It brings our innovation, our imagination and our ingenuity together in a single statement,” Emanuel said.

City Hall said the project will be privately funded by Vornado Realty Trust. The city and the building will enter into a 30-year agreement for the project, pending City Council approval.

Mark Kelly, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said “there’s nothing else like it in the world.” City Hall said it is the first time a projection of its size and scope will be completely dedicated to art, with no branding or sponsorship credits.

Though plans are still evolving, Kelly said the projections would likely happen after rush hour — and after dusk — for two hours a day, five days a week, starting this fall. He also suspects some pieces of art that appear on the building will become “iconic,” and “we’ll be watching them every year for years on end.”

But Kelly also said open-source software will allow artists to submit high-resolution images to be considered for projection on the building. Details are still being worked out, he said.

“It takes an incredibly expensive technology,” Kelly said. “It’s an artists’ tool that artists could never think about exploring because of the cost of it. And then it’s flipped. It’s now free.”

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