Chicago’s most famous museum became a little more interesting in June with the exhibition of the two presidential portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama.
It’s a historic moment for the city and its people, who have already begun flocking to the Art Institute of Chicago to see these famous and unique portraits, first unveiled in February 2018.
Presidential portraits have been a traditional way of commemorating the end of a presidency throughout American history, but the Obamas also departed from tradition by choosing contemporary artists.
The life-size portrait of Barack Obama was painted by artist Kehinde Wiley, while the portrait of Michelle Obama was made by artist Amy Sherald. Both Wiley and Sherald became the first African-Americans to paint presidential portraits.
Although Barack Obama was born and raised in Hawaii, Chicago has long been the political and cultural home of the Obamas.
That’s part of why the Art Institute of Chicago and the Obama Foundation partnered to offer nearly 1,000 South Side students the opportunity to view the paintings without paying a dime.
For most of these young Chicagoans, it was their first visit to the museum, reported the local ABC News station.
“I never thought I would have the opportunity to see it in person,” Tyion Hardwick, a junior youth leader on the South Shore Drill Team, said in the article. “To see it in person and to be invited, that made me so excited, so ready to come here today.”
The Obamas have become an important part of Chicago’s history, but they are also a part of American history, and it’s a special moment for the city to host these portraits throughout the summer.
The importance of the portraits is much more about art and culture than politics, said Thomas Kane, a Chicago-based private wealth manager and art collector.
“These paintings have made a big impact on the art of portraiture,” Thomas Kane said. “These paintings will live on for a long time, and will likely be exhibited many times in many different cities in coming years. The fact that Chicago is getting to see them first is a big deal for the city and the people who live here.”
According to Jordan Carter, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago interviewed by WTTW News, the artists chosen by the Obamas “were a bold choice.”
“Both artists really take portraiture to another level,” Carter said. “They really shift the terms of engagement of who is being portrayed in a portrait. So as a selection for presidential portraiture, there’s been nothing quite like it. They are vivid, they’re experimental, conceptual. They are everything that really defines 21st century contemporary art. And the Obamas are champions of contemporary art, so they knew what they were getting themselves into.”
Chicago is the first stop in a five-city tour of the presidential portraits, which are on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art. The Obama Portraits are on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through Sunday, Aug. 15.
On its website, the Art Institute wrote that both the city and the museum have connections to the Obamas. Michelle Obama visited frequently with her family when she was growing up on the South Side, and the museum was also the site of the couple’s first date.
“The Art Institute is thrilled to provide our visitors—from Chicago and around the world—the opportunity to experience the power and beauty of these celebrated works in our galleries,” the website said.
After the Art Institute presentation, the portraits will travel on to the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, High Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.