Aldermen OK plan to turn Merchandise Mart’s facade into giant nighttime art show

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

After a dazzling show-and-tell video, a City Council committee on Monday authorized a public art program that a top mayoral aide contends will become as popular as the Bean at Millennium Park and the Picasso at Daley Center plaza.

The 30-year licensing agreement — with options for two, 10 year extensions — paves the way for the owner of Chicago’s iconic Merchandise Mart to install a lighting installation that would project images of public art across the nearly three acres of the building’s southern-facing façade.

The so-called “Art on the Mart” will cost $8 million and be bankrolled by Vornado Realty Trust, the company that purchased the massive riverfront structure that was the world’s largest building when it opened in 1930.

For two hours a night, five nights a week and 10 months a year, 200 pieces of artwork will be projected onto 115,000 square feet of the mart’s southern, riverfront façade at a resolution that Fleet and Facilties Management Commissioner David Reynolds described as more than twice the clarity of a 4K Ultra HD television.

“This would be the largest projection installation of its kind in the world and the only installation known to us that will project only art images without any branding or advertising,” Reynolds told alderman.


Art projections at Merchandise Mart likely to begin this fall


On business days, the light show won’t start until dusk or evening rush, whichever is later, Reynolds said. On weekends, it may start earlier.

Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly was so excited about the idea of turning the Mart into a giant public canvass, he predicted that Art on the Mart would fast become one of the most beloved pieces of public art in a city famous for it.

“The public art installation has the potential to be as impactful as the Bean and the Picasso — public art works that have transformed how we see and experience our city,” Kelly said.

“The art installation is unprecedented in the world. To our knowledge, there is no permanent video mapping project system of this size and scope. Beyond the size and scope, it is unprecedented . . . Nothing but art will show up on this wall. There will be no branding, no sponsorship credits or messaging allowed. The beneficiaries of the art will be our citizens, our local businesses and the legions of tourists who will experience the art wall project.”

Two advisory groups will work with the Mart to ensure the safety and success of the program. A curatorial advisory board that includes at least two local artists will select the artwork to be projected on the Mart’s façade.

“Think of this as a giant canvass for our artists, and we’re giving them the paint and the brushes and the canvass at no cost to deliver their work,” Kelly said.

The second panel will be a civic advisory council. Those members will coordinate with city agencies and key stakeholders “to ensure that the operation is safe and meets our purposes,” Kelly said.

The show-and-tell video was a projected painting of Chicago Blues legend Muddy Waters.

Afterwards, Ald. Joe Moore, chairman of the Committee on Housing and Real Estate, asked aloud, “Who is that? Any guesses?”

When a colleague shouted out, “Muddy Waters,” Moore added, “And we’re not talking about the river.”

Also on Monday, the Committee on Housing and Real Estate approved an ordinance championed by downtown Aldermen Brian Hopkins (2nd) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) to prevent condominium wars from escalating, with help from a state law that requires condominium associations to share all personal information with neighbors, including email addresses and cell phone numbers.

Instead, the new ordinance would allow condo associations to make that decision for themselves by a three-fifths majority vote of all homeowners in the association.

“In condo associations, relationships can be contentious. People wanted to be able to determine how much of that information is shared with their neighbors,” Reilly said.

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