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New modern art wing lights Chicago's Art Institute

LIGHT, bright and definitely pricey - the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago is a triumph for Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano.

In a single stroke, the 24,526-square-meter wing, which opens today, turns Chicago's art museum into one of the nation's largest and opens up the previously windowless fortress of culture to the sky and the city.

"This is the largest expansion and addition in the Art Institute's history," said museum president and director James Cuno.

The wing, which houses the museum's modern art collection, cost US$300 million, on top of US$110 million for related improvements and upkeep.

Cuno recently announced that adult admission to the museum would rise from US$12 to US$18, making it one of the most expensive art museums in the country, but Chicago Park District voted Wednesday to cut the fee to US$16.

It's a pretty price to pay, but Piano's work may be worth it. He has covered the wing with a "flying carpet" of aluminum blades, calibrated for Chicago's latitude, allowing only northern light to shine through skylights forming the three-floor wing's roof.

Cuno has estimated that the light from outside should reduce the electrical consumption of the new wing to half that of the largely windowless main building.

The space and chronological arrangement of works allow visitors to see the bewildering array of 20th century artistic schools in their historical context and gain clues to their interrelations.

The top-floor galleries begin and end with works by Pablo Picasso, demonstrating the steady march toward increasing abstraction by such artists as Piet Mondrian and Constantin Brancusi. The added space also allows display of more of the museum's surrealist collection, some of which was kept in storage.

The second floor is devoted to European and American art from 1950 to the present, including a room devoted to the color field paintings of Ellsworth Kelly. In the Gerhardt Richter room, location of the German painter's pieces play on Piano's theme of ambient lighting, with Richter's all-gray works facing away from windows and his color panels receiving outdoor light obliquely.

The wing's windows also will likely be a major draw since they frame Millennium Park and its Frank Gehry-designed music pavilion and the city's looming skyline. The wing's third floor connects to the park through a cantilevered bridge, which stretches across Monroe Street.

The first floor houses a grand entrance, new photography and temporary exhibition galleries, an educational center, offices, a high-end restaurant, and a new gift shop. Despite the amenities, some critics have pointed out that only 6,038 square meters of the Modern Wing has been devoted to new gallery space.

The Art Institute will offer free admission today through May 22. It also plans to increase the number of its free-admission days and evenings.


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